Written by Munis Topcuoglu, Editor at EHN Canada.
A drug or alcohol intervention is a planned event, organized by family and friends to persuade a loved one (the “intervention subject”) who has a drug, alcohol, or other addiction to get treatment. Interventions achieve the best results when a professional interventionist is hired to help plan and also to facilitate the intervention. Professional interventionists have deep expertise regarding addiction and mental health, and also extensive experience with interventions. Penetrating the resistance, defence mechanisms, and stubborn denial of a person with an addiction can be extremely difficult—we don’t recommend do-it-yourself (DIY) interventions without professional help. While this article explains how to stage a drug or alcohol intervention, the same process can be followed to stage an intervention for a person with a behavioural addiction such as sex addiction (problematic compulsive sexual behaviour) or gambling addiction.
Interventions are about helping a loved one
Interventions are about being proactive and helping a loved one who is suffering from addiction. It’s a carefully planned process and should never be done spontaneously. The objective of the intervention is to convince the intervention subject to agree to get treatment for their drug or alcohol addiction. This is achieved by triggering a moment of clarity in which they realize and acknowledge the harm that their addiction has caused the people around them. At the same time, during the intervention, the subject must feel that they are loved and supported by all their family and friends who are present. The intervention should also help the subject realize that there is a solution for their problem. Typically, if a person’s drug or alcohol addiction has gotten severe enough to warrant an intervention, the solution will be inpatient treatment at a drug and alcohol rehab center.
An intervention starts an authentic dialogue
Staging a drug or alcohol intervention, opens an honest and authentic dialogue between the intervention subject and their family and friends. Since the motivation for an intervention is helping your loved one get better, communication should be kind, loving, and supportive. Interventions are not the time or place for venting, arguing about who’s “right” or “wrong,” or for family and friends to unload their own baggage. Participants must avoid blaming, accusing, and saying hurtful or insulting things to the subject—all of which are likely to trigger defensiveness and denial, resulting in refusal to accept help and get treatment. Instead, participants must focus on the harm that the person’s addiction has caused them, describing specific events and how they felt hurt. Through the process of preparing for an intervention, the subject’s family and friends will learn about addiction and better understand the struggles that their loved one is facing. This will help them approach the person with love and compassion during the intervention.
Yes, the majority of drug or alcohol interventions are successful at persuading the intervention subject to get treatment for their addiction. Interventions that are carefully planned and facilitated by a professional interventionist have success rates as high as 90%. Conversely, a rushed DIY intervention without proper research, planning, and preparation is unlikely to succeed and may have disastrous consequences.
An intervention is likely the best course of action when a loved has an addiction and the following are true:
- They’re causing harm to themselves or others.
- The harm they’re causing is getting worse.
- They’re ignoring individually voiced concerns from friends and family.
- They deny that they have a problem.
- They’re unwilling to get treatment or do anything about their addiction.
Communicating a unified message to the person as a group can have a more powerful effect than one-on-one interactions and can successfully break through the strong denial and resistance associated with addiction. When the intervention subject is faced with a cohesive group whose members are all communicating the same message, it becomes much harder for them to minimize or hide their alcohol or drug addiction.
If your loved one is starting to have problems in other important areas of their life due to their addiction, such as their work, their studies, or their health, these are also signs that an intervention might be in order. Unexplained and frequent borrowing of money, stealing, and secretive behaviour are also signs that an alcohol or drug problem may be getting worse and should be addressed as soon as possible.
The first step in planning to stage a drug or alcohol intervention is to get help—you cannot do an intervention on your own. Start by talking to the intervention subject’s other family members and friends to see who would be interested in participating in the intervention. Find and consult addiction professionals who can help you learn more about addiction, interventions, and treatment options. This could include addictions counsellors, social workers, psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors specializing in addiction treatment. As previously mentioned, for best results, hire a professional interventionist for both planning and facilitating the intervention.
Hire a professional interventionist
Professional interventionists provide many services including support, education, guidance, direction, and training to the family and friends of the intervention subject as they plan and prepare for the intervention. In addition to their expertise and experience, a professional interventionist helps the planning process by providing an invaluable outside perspective due to their lack of any prior relationship or emotional involvement with the subject. Professional interventionists are also skilled at facilitating interventions and keeping the conversation focused and on topic, which can be especially challenging when emotions start running high.
We strongly recommend hiring a professional interventionist in all cases—but it’s especially critical if any of the following are true about the intervention subject:
- They have concurrent mental health disorders.
- They’re known to get violent when confronted or challenged.
- They have attempted or talked about suicide, or have engaged in self-harming behviours.
- They have been to treatment before and relapsed.
- Their relationships with all their family and friends are already very tense, strained, resentful, or adversarial.
- Their family and friends are all at a loss regarding what to say to get through to them.
How to find a professional interventionist
When looking for an interventionist, ask doctors or therapists for recommendations. Also ask local mental health care providers such as hospitals and drug and alcohol rehab centers. If you have private health insurance or employee benefits, or if the intervention subject does, call the insurance company and ask them if there are any professional interventionists that are covered under the plan.
The most effective drug or alcohol intervention teams typically consist of between four and six family members, friends, and possibly coworkers who are close to the intervention subject—plus a professional interventionist. One person should be appointed to be the coordinator or “project manager” who makes sure that the other team members stay on track preparing for the intervention. The professional interventionist could take this role depending on the scope or your agreement with them.
Choose people who’ll make the subject feel comfortable
The objective when choosing team members is to assemble a group of people that will not scare the intervention subject, or cause them to feel ambushed or ganged-up on—this could easily cause them to flee the intervention, a highly undesirable result. Hence, the four-to-six individuals should all be people who love and know the subject very well. They must have good relationships with the subject so that their participation in the intervention will be motivating. They should be people whom the subject likes, respects, and trusts—people whose opinions the subject values and cares about.
Exclude people who won’t be able to control themselves
Your intervention team should not include any of the following types of people:
- Anyone who feels extreme anger, frustration, or outrage towards the subject
- Anyone currently struggling with substance use or mental health disorders
- Anyone who struggles with regulating their emotions
- Anyone you suspect will have a hard time sticking to a script or staying on-topic
- Anyone who has “no filter” when talking about emotionally difficult topics
Including any of these types of people will likely be highly counterproductive as their intense emotions are likely to spill out and disrupt or derail the intervention.
If you’re uncertain, a professional interventionist can give you useful guidance in choosing the other members of your intervention team.
When scheduling the intervention, keep in mind that most successful drug or alcohol interventions take between 30 and 90 minutes. Shorter than 30 minutes will usually not be enough to get through to the intervention subject; longer than 90 minutes will often start to become too stressful and fatiguing for both the subject and the intervention team members.
Best time of day to stage a drug or alcohol intervention
The best time of day to stage a drug or alcohol intervention is whatever time of day the intervention subject is least likely to be high or drunk. For most people, this will usually be first thing in the morning (or whenever they usually wake up) before they start using or drinking. This will help ensure that they’re relatively calm and rational, making it more likely that they’ll be able to commit to a decision to get treatment for their addiction.
Schedule a date that gives you time to prepare
Ensure that you schedule the intervention for a date that gives you and the rest of your intervention team adequate time to thoroughly prepare. Preparing to stage an effective drug or alcohol intervention can take several weeks of sustained effort from all team members. Review this entire guide and consult a professional interventionist to get an accurate idea of the amount of work involved. Next, discuss with the rest of your team to agree on how much time is reasonable for all of you to get prepared and be ready.
Choose a safe and private location
The location you choose for the intervention should be safe, private, and comfortable. However, your home or the subject’s home may be too comfortable and can make it easy for the subject to leave the intervention and go hide in a bedroom. A professional interventionist will have an office or other space that is designed for staging interventions and these will often be ideal locations. The formality of a professional interventionist’s space can help ensure that all participants will be on their “best behaviour” during the intervention. In case you choose not to hire a professional interventionist to facilitate, churches and community centers may also offer suitable spaces.
Decide how to get the subject to the intervention
Decide who will bring the intervention subject to the intervention location. This should be a member of your intervention team with whom the subject has a very close and trusting relationship, and with whom the subject feels very comfortable and at ease. Also decide on a compelling pretense under which the team member will persuade the subject to accompany them to the location. Typically, at this point we don’t advise full transparency—telling the intervention subject that you’re going to take them an intervention is unlikely to gain their cooperation.
Start by doing some research to learn about the intervention subject’s type of addiction and about addiction in general. A professional interventionist will be a great source of information who can both answer your questions and direct you to learning resources. Improving your knowledge of addiction will help you choose the best drug or alcohol rehab program for the subject. It will also help you communicate more effectively with the subject about their addiction during the intervention and will help you avoid blaming them or making moral judgments. Ideally, all members of your intervention team should participate in doing research and should share the information they find with each other.
Choose the best inpatient rehab center for the subject
Your next step should be to talk to an addiction treatment professional about what kind of treatment program would be best for the subject’s type and severity of addiction, and also for their personality. If the subject’s addiction is severe enough that you need to stage an intervention, then you’ll probably be looking at residential treatment options. Do your research and find a program at an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab center that best fits the subject’s needs—and again, the whole intervention team should be involved in this process. A professional interventionist will be knowledgeable regarding treatment options and can save you a lot of time and effort by providing you reliable and high quality information and guiding you to make the best choice. A professional interventionist can also help you create a more comprehensive and long-term treatment plan for the subject, including an aftercare or continuing care plan for when the subject completes residential treatment.
Make tentative arrangements for admission to the rehab center
If the intervention is successful, you’re going to want to get the subject into treatment as quickly as possible. Take practical measures to facilitate this: start by calling the chosen rehab center and find out if they can admit the subject immediately after the intervention date. If they can, find out what steps are required to get the subject admitted and do whatever is required. If you chose an inpatient program at a drug and alcohol rehab center that is not local, make tentative travel arrangements beforehand, and consider packing a suitcase for the subject before the intervention, if practical.
To ensure that the conversation stays focused and on topic, every member of your intervention team should write a script of everything that they’ll say to the intervention subject. The scripts should clearly describe the harm that the subject has caused to those around them, But, they should also emphasize that the subject has the love and support of their family and friends, who will be there for the subject throughout their recovery process. Scripts should also clearly describe the consequences that each team member will enforce if the subject refuses to get treatment for their drug or alcohol addiction. Finally, there should be one script describing the details of the proposed treatment plan for the subject, which one team member will read after all the team members have read their personal scripts.
Vivid, high-impact descriptions of harm caused by the subject’s behaviour
Each script should describe how the intervention subject’s drug or alcohol addiction has harmed their family member or friend. The objective of this part is to help the subject realize that their addiction affects not only themselves, but also those around them. Keep in mind that people with a drug or alcohol addiction are often so wrapped up in their own worlds that they have no idea about the harm that they’re causing others.
This section of the script should provide specific examples of destructive behaviours and clear descriptions of the harm caused. It should contain only authentic statements, motivated by love and the earnest desire to help the subject—no accusations, insults, shaming, etc. Avoid stigmatizing labels such as “junkie,” “addict,” or “alcoholic” and generally avoid moral and judgmental language. Instead, describe your feelings using “I” statements—for example, “I was very sad and hurt when you used drugs and…” Vivid descriptions of specific incidents will be much more effective than talking abstractly about the subject’s general patterns of behaviour—describe in detail a few incidents related to the subject’s drug or alcohol addiction that were especially painful for you.
Conveying your sincere concern and desire to see the subject get better is the key to success. Hence, avoid using words and talking about non-essential topics that you know the intervention subject will find especially triggering. Simple and direct communication will be most effective—don’t sugar coat or beat around the bush—but at the same time do your best not to unnecessarily aggravate, enrage, or cause defensive reactions.
Assurance that you’ll be there for them
Each script should describe the ways in which the family member or friend will support the subject through their recovery process. Some examples of helpful support include the following:
- Helping them pack and get their affairs in order before residential treatment (ideally this should mostly be done before the intervention takes place)
- Driving them, or travelling with them, to the inpatient drug and alcohol rehab center
- Driving them regularly to in-person outpatient treatment sessions or aftercare
- Going with them to support group meetings
- Keeping them accountable to their recovery plan after completing residential treatment
- Attending family therapy sessions with them
- Family members should attend a family program independently of the subject, while the subject is in treatment. This will prepare them to provide more effective support for the subject once the subject completes their inpatient program.
Clearly state the consequences of refusing to get treatment
Scripts should clearly describe how the family member’s or friend’s relationship with the subject will change if the subject refuses to get treatment. For starters, all team members must make firm commitments to stop enabling the person and to stop participating in codependent behaviours. Consequences should be stated simply and directly. They may include things such as the following:
- Cutting the subject off financially
- Forcing the subject to move out
- Ending or limiting a relationship with the subject
- Taking custody of children
Giving clear ultimatums is fine—as long as they are fair and well justified.
Explain your rationale for the consequences and be careful with your tone—your consequences should not come off as threats or as attempts to coerce the subject into doing something that they don’t want to do. As with all other components of the intervention, it’s critical that you communicate that your motivation is love and concern for the subject’s well-being. Emphasize that you will enforce the consequences if they refuse to get treatment—not because you want to hurt the subject, but because you care about them. Do your best to explain your rationale and how enforcing the consequences will, in the long-term, result in the best outcomes for everyone involved.
Explain the proposed treatment plan and its benefits
One script should explain the details of the proposed treatment plan and its benefits—one team member will read it after all the team members have read their personal scripts. Start by clearly describing the steps, goals, and conditions of the proposed treatment plan. Next, describe the details of the inpatient treatment program, its benefits, and why you believe that it’s the best fit for the subject. Include a list of all the benefits that the subject can achieve for their life and relationships by going through with the proposed treatment plan. Make sure you emphasize that professional inpatient drug and alcohol rehab programs are highly effective at helping people get better and at providing the foundations for successful long-term recovery.
Ask a professional interventionist to review your scripts
A professional interventionist can help you refine your scripts and make your communication much more persuasive and, consequently, your intervention much more likely to succeed. If you haven’t hired a professional interventionist, then review each other’s scripts to ensure that all content and language is constructive, non-judgmental, non-shaming, and coming from a place of love and motivation to help the person. Revise and refine your scripts according to the feedback you receive until everyone on the team is satisfied that the scripts cannot be improved any further.
Even the most well-planned intervention facilitated by a professional interventionist may not go smoothly or may not persuade the intervention subject to get treatment. Ensure that your intervention team is prepared for anything by considering possible contingencies. Make any necessary additions or revisions to your scripts as you work through this step.
If the drug or alcohol intervention succeeds
If the intervention succeeds, this means that the subject has agreed to get treatment, consistent with the proposed treatment plan. With adequate preparation, and the help of a professional interventionist, the majority of interventions will end with success. Therefore, you should be prepared to immediately take the next steps and get the person into treatment as quickly and efficiently as possible. As described in the last section of Step 4, before the intervention, you should preemptively make tentative arrangements to get the subject admitted to your chosen treatment program, as well as travel arrangements, if applicable.
Expect intense reactions and plan your responses
All your intervention team members should be prepared to handle intense emotional reactions from the subject, such as extreme sadness or anger. Your team should have planned responses for handling any of the following reactions:
- Subject starts shouting or screaming
- Subject starts to cry uncontrollably
- Subject says things about someone present that are extremely offensive or insulting
- Subject tries to leave
A professional interventionist can help you plan for such reactions and can also handle them skillfully should they actually occur during the intervention.
Be prepared for anything
Think about directions the subject might try to steer the conversation to avoid admitting their drug or alcohol addiction. Make a list of objections, counter arguments, or deflections you think they might attempt during the intervention. For each one, write down a response that will get the conversation back on track.
An intervention subject will sometimes try to manipulatively persuade the intervention team that their addiction is not that bad and that they’ll take care of it on their own, without getting treatment or any professional help. Be prepared to hold your ground. Negotiating with a person who has an addiction is a slippery slope. Ask for a simple “yes” or “no” answer to whether or not they agree to the proposed treatment plan. Every team member should be fully prepared to follow through on all the consequences they described unless the subject answers “yes.”
Planning ahead and being prepared will give your team the flexibility to effectively handle the different ways that the intervention might go. It’s worth repeating that team members should be prepared to follow through and enforce their consequences if the person refuses to get treatment. If the subject perceives the consequences as empty threats or feels that some team members are wavering, this will make the subject less likely to agree to getting treatment.
If the subject refuses to get treatment
Keep in mind that even if the subject refuses to get treatment at the end of the intervention, the members of your intervention team have done everything in their power to help the person—for the time being.
Interventions can get very emotional. It helps for everyone to know when it’s their turn to talk, and to know to stop talking once they’ve finished reading their scripts. Rehearsing helps ensure that everyone speaks in order and sticks to their scripts so that communication is focused and effective. Rehearsing also provides an opportunity to give and receive feedback and further refine team members’ personal scripts. Finally, it helps team members become aware of their own emotional reactions to reading their scripts out loud and helps them prepare for these so that they can better manage their own emotions during the intervention. If any team members won’t commit to attending at least one rehearsal, this may be a sign that they’re not sufficiently committed to helping the subject, and that perhaps they shouldn’t participate in the intervention
Decide on the speaking order
Decide on the order in which team members will read their scripts. Recall that the objective of the intervention is to persuade the person to agree to get treatment and that the intervention is over once the person agrees.
Carefully consider which team members’ scripts might be most effective, and the best order for the subject to hear them. Also consider how the subject’s relationships with each family member or friend will affect their receptiveness. For example, if they’re already sick of hearing about their addiction from their family, then having their friends and other loved ones speak first might be the most effective approach.
After everyone has read their personal scripts, one team member should read the script explaining the details of the proposed treatment plan. This includes clearly describing the steps, goals, and conditions with which the team is asking the person to agree. Your intervention team members may be feeling fatigued and emotional by this point in the intervention—hence, a professional interventionist may be ideal for this role as they will be able to speak about the treatment plan with a calm and positive tone.
Double-check the tone and content of your scripts
All the members of the intervention team should be together for at least one rehearsal where everyone reads their scripts out loud to the whole group. This is an opportunity to pay attention to what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. It’s also an opportunity for team members to provide each other constructive criticism and help each other revise their scripts. Ensure that scripts are concise. The content should emphasize your love and concern—no judging, blaming, or shaming. Remember that the intervention is about helping the subject—avoid self-pity or making it about yourself.
Practice speaking warmly
When you’re rehearsing, really focus on how you’re delivering your message. You should be speaking with a warm, caring tone that is consistent with the loving, caring, and supportive words in your script. Your body language should also match this by being open, relaxed, and non-threatening as follows:
- Avoid crossing your arms or legs.
- Avoid pointing your finger.
- Keep your hands relaxed and avoid clenching them into fists.
- Keep your shoulders relaxed and avoid hunching them.
- Look the subject in the eyes when you’re speaking to them.
- Lean in towards the subject for emphasis when saying something especially important.
On the day of the intervention, don’t start the intervention if the intervention subject is drunk or high at the scheduled time—delay the intervention until they’ve sobered up.
Important dos and don’ts during a drug or alcohol intervention
All team members should go through the following list of things to keep in mind during the intervention:
- Maintain an environment that’s kind, loving, and supportive.
- Stick to the order that the team decided.
- Stick to your scripts (by this point, you will have put a lot of time and effort into them—trust the process!).
- Stop talking when you’re finished reading your script.
- Avoid stigmatizing and shaming labels.
- Avoid moral and judgmental language.
- Always speak from a place of love—never anger.
- Don’t let the subject start a fight or change the subject.
- Emphasize the real harm that the subject’s behaviour has caused.
- Emphasize your desire to help the subject get better and that you’re there to support them.
- Manage your own emotions and stick to the plan—don’t speak or act reactively.
- If you have a professional interventionist facilitating the intervention, follow all their directions.
Don’t panic—stay focused and request a decisive answer
If the intervention gets emotionally intense, don’t panic, stay focused on the objective—persuading the person to agree to the proposed treatment plan and clearly communicating the consequences of refusing to get treatment. If you have a professional interventionist facilitating the intervention, you can rely on them as a source of stability and guidance. After everyone has read their scripts, and the proposed treatment plan has been clearly explained, firmly ask the person to make an immediate decision—do not give them “a few days to think about it”!
Whether or not the intervention subject agrees to get treatment, the intervention team members must act consistently with the statements they made during the intervention. This means following through on promises to support the subject if they agree to get treatment, or enforcing consequences if the subject doesn’t agree to get treatment.
If they agree, get them into treatment ASAP
As previously discussed in this guide, you should have previously made arrangements to get the subject into an inpatient drug or alcohol rehab program quickly and efficiently should they agree to the proposed treatment plan. If they do agree, take action right away to start the process of getting them admitted. Your intervention team members should all support this process as promised in their scripts.
Refusal to get treatment isn’t failure
If the subject doesn’t agree to get treatment, don’t view the intervention as a failure—you’ve started a conversation. Follow up with them and try to continue the conversation and keep trying to persuade them.
For the person with drug or alcohol addiction, living with the consequences of refusing to get treatment can help persuade them that their problem is serious and that they need treatment. They need to understand through experience that all the statements made during the intervention by their loved ones were made in earnest—everyone was dead-serious and no one was bluffing. This may take some time to sink in, which is why it’s critical that everyone fully commit and strictly enforce all the consequences that they described during the intervention.
Following the intervention, any major drug- or alcohol-related incident in the subject’s life that happens after the intervention such as a DUI, a drug-related arrest, getting fired from their job, etc. are useful opportunities to try to persuade them again to get treatment for their alcohol or drug addiction.
Individuals with substance use disorders are often in denial about the harm they’re causing themselves and others. They often live in fear of the judgment of their family and friends. A drug or alcohol intervention can help them overcome their denial and realize the harm that their addiction is causing. Realizing that they have the love and support of their family and friends also makes it much more likely for them to agree to get treatment and more likely that they’ll fully engage in their treatment program and achieve successful long-term recovery. Don’t forget, regardless of whether they accept or refuse to get treatment at the end of the intervention, as long as you and the other participants follow through on your consequences and continue communicating with the person and offering your support, you’re helping them make progress towards their recovery.
We Can Help You
If you would like to learn more about the treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, or would like to get a loved one admitted, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Départ in Montreal, QC