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David Baxter PhD

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Intervention FAQ: Help loved ones overcome addiction and abuse
By Mayo Clinic Staff
Aug 29, 2007

An intervention can motivate someone to seek help for alcoholism, addiction, drug abuse, eating disorders or other addictive behaviors. Learn when to hold one and how to make it successful.

Many families and friends agonize over how to help loved ones struggling with addiction, alcoholism, drug problems, substance abuse or other mental health problems. They feel helpless as their loved ones spiral into lives of desperate chaos. Oftentimes, children, partners, siblings and parents are subjected to abuse, violence, threats and emotional upheaval because of alcohol and drug problems.

One way that concerned family and friends may be able to mobilize forces to help both the user and themselves is through an intervention. Here's what you should know about an intervention, including what it is, who might benefit and how to organize one for someone you care about.

What is an intervention?
An intervention is an organized, planned process in which family and friends, and sometimes colleagues and clergy or faith leaders, join together in a meeting to compassionately confront a loved one in an effort to encourage him or her to seek treatment for alcoholism, addiction or another mental health problem. The intervention:

  • Provides specific examples of harmful behaviors and their impact
  • Offers a pre-arranged treatment option
  • Spells out specific consequences if a loved one refuses to accept treatment
Who might benefit from an intervention?
An intervention can help people who struggle with a variety of mental health conditions and addictive behaviors but who are in denial about their situation or refuse treatment, including:

  • Alcoholism
  • Prescription drug abuse
  • Abuse of street drugs
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-injury
  • Compulsive gambling
  • Sexual addiction
How do you know when an intervention is needed?
Some indications that a loved one may benefit from an intervention include:

  • Health problems because of the addiction or other disorder
  • Your loved one harms or threatens family, friends or strangers
  • Children are neglected or abused
  • Job loss
  • Financial problems
  • Homelessness
  • Risk of suicide or self-harm
  • Driving under the influence
  • Loss or alienation of friends
  • Legal problems or criminal activity
  • Previous unsuccessful attempts at treatment
When should an intervention take place?
It's common to think that people must hit "rock bottom" before they're ready for treatment or willing to accept help on their own. Many experts believe that's too late, though. By then, relationships may be damaged beyond repair. Children may be neglected, abused or deeply emotionally wounded. Your loved one may lose his or her job. Worse, your loved one could die because of the alcoholism, addiction or other mental health condition.

Instead, think of an intervention as giving your loved one a reason to want to seek help. This is sometimes referred to as "raising the bottom" because it encourages a loved one to seek help before he or she otherwise would.

How does a typical intervention work?
A family member or friend may propose doing an intervention on a loved one and form a planning group. The group gathers information about the extent of the loved one's problem and researches the condition. The group makes arrangements to enroll the loved one in a specific treatment program. Keep the plan confidential, so that the loved one doesn't find out.

Group members draft short letters to their loved one that will be read during the intervention. These letters are a key part of the intervention. They typically express your love and concern and may highlight a fond memory or two. But they also detail specific problems and incidents brought on by your loved one's harmful behavior.

The letters may discuss the emotional, health and financial toll of your loved one's illness ? both on him or her and on others. Finally, they should outline specific consequences that will occur if your loved one refuses to accept treatment. One consequence may be asking your loved one to move out. Another may be loss of contact with children.

The group forms a core team that will personally participate in the intervention. Team members set a date and location for the intervention. Without revealing the reason, the loved one is asked to the intervention site. Members of the core team then take turns reading the letters to their loved one. After the letters are read, the loved one is presented with a treatment option and asked to accept that option on the spot. The intervention typically lasts an hour or less.

Is an intervention simply an ambush?
Although the intervention may come as a surprise, it isn't meant to ambush your loved one. Don't use it as a forum for hostile attacks or for name-calling. Keep it honest but loving and dignified. The numerous examples of problems caused by your loved one's addiction or substance abuse problem are intended to provide powerful but caring pressure to change and accept treatment. The threat of consequences for not committing to treatment ? such as the loss of important relationships ? can be effective motivators. Some studies uphold the powerful influence that family intervention can have in motivating a loved one to move beyond denial and seek help.

Should you use a professional for an intervention?
You can use a professional experienced in interventions or hold an intervention on your own. Experienced intervention professionals, sometimes called interventionists, may be able to organize an intervention more quickly and efficiently than an ad hoc group of family and friends can, especially if you're unsure how to hold an intervention. An interventionist can also serve as a neutral, unbiased coach. He or she can even escort your loved one to the treatment facility.

Consider using a professional interventionist if your loved one:

  • Has a history of serious mental illness
  • Has a history of violence
  • Has previously engaged in suicidal behavior or recently talked about suicide
  • Is taking several unknown mood-altering substances
  • Has significant defense mechanisms, such as denial, anger or minimizing their situation
How do you find an intervention professional?
To find an intervention professional:

  • Ask for recommendations from a reputable local or national treatment center
  • Contact resources listed in reputable books or online sources
Keep in mind that interventionist fees typically aren't covered by health insurance. If you can't afford the full services of an interventionist, consider a one-time consultation for guidance. Or, ask a trusted clergy or faith leader to facilitate the intervention.

Who should be on the intervention team?
The intervention team is vital to the intervention's success. An intervention team usually includes three to eight people who are important in the life of your loved one. They should be people your family member or friend loves, respects, admires, depends on and likes.

Team members may include:

  • Partners or spouses
  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Grandparents
  • Children, if appropriate
  • Friends
  • Co-workers or managers
  • Clergy or faith leaders
  • Medical professionals
  • Teachers
Who shouldn't be on the intervention team?
Don't underestimate the power of your intervention team, since they are the ones who may convince your loved one to get treatment. Choose them carefully.

Don't include on the intervention team:

  • Anyone who has a substance abuse problem or unmanaged mental health issue
  • Anyone your loved one strongly dislikes
  • Anyone, even family members, who may sabotage the intervention, such as tipping off your loved one about it
If you think it's important to have someone involved but worry that it may create a volatile situation during the intervention, there's another option: Consider having that person write your loved one a letter that someone else can read during the intervention.

How do you find a treatment program to offer at the intervention?
Part of an intervention is having arrangements made in advance for your loved one to get immediate treatment. To find an appropriate treatment program, do some research keeping these considerations and questions in mind:

  • If possible, ask a trusted health care or mental health provider for a recommendation.
  • Contact several treatment centers so that you can compare their programs, requirements and fees.
  • Find out if your loved one's insurance, if any, will cover the treatment program.
  • Be wary of treatment centers promising quick fixes or using new methods unheard of elsewhere.
  • Contact national resources, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon, for recommendations.
  • If possible, visit the treatment center to talk to the director and take a tour.
  • Remember to make travel arrangements to the treatment program, too. If possible, consider having a packed suitcase ready for your loved one.
How can you help ensure a successful intervention?
Because of the intense emotions, the process of planning an intervention and the intervention itself can cause conflict, anger and resentment even among family and friends who know a loved one needs their help.

To help run a successful intervention:

  • Don't hold an intervention on the spur of the moment. It may take several weeks to plan.
  • Do your homework and learn more about addiction, substance abuse or other mental illness from reputable sources.
  • Appoint a single person to act as a liaison for all team members and to keep lines of communication open.
  • Make sure each team member has the same literature or resources so that everyone is on the same page.
  • Have a list of tasks to complete and appoint team members to do them.
  • Hold conference calls if necessary to share updates and information.
  • Stage a rehearsal of the intervention ? without your loved one ? to make sure you've covered all the bases. Here, you can decide the order of letter reading, sitting arrangements and other details, so that there's no fumbling during the real intervention.
  • Don't give your loved one time to think about whether to accept the treatment offer, even if he or she asks for a few days to think it over. Doing so just allows your loved one to continue denying a problem, to go into hiding or to go on a dangerous binge.
  • Anticipate your loved one's objections and have calm, rational rebuttals prepared for each.
What if your loved one refuses help despite an intervention?
Unfortunately, not all interventions achieve their goal. In some cases, a loved one may refuse the treatment plan. Your loved one may erupt in anger or insist that he or she doesn't need help. Your loved one may be resentful and accuse you of betrayal.

Emotionally prepare yourself for these situations, while remaining hopeful for positive change. Make sure that you and other team members are willing to follow through on the consequences you've outlined. Also, remember that you don't have control over your loved one's behavior. However, you do have the ability to remove yourself ? and any children ? from the circle of destructive influences.
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