How to Do an Intervention

holding hands

It May Be the Nudge People Need to Get Help

It is extremely painful to stand by and watch someone's life be destroyed. Yet that's the position family members find themselves in when a loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol denies having a problem. Until that person admits the need for help, there is usually little that can be done.

Professionals who conduct formal interventions focus on helping family members and friends hold up a mirror to their loved one's behavior, revealing the need to confront their addiction before hitting bottom—losing their job, health and family.

Share your Concerns

The power of an addiction intervention comes from having participants express concern and compassion for the alcoholic's welfare, explains Mary McMahon, an intervention specialist for Intervention Services, Inc., in Edina, Minnesota.

McMahon has family members and friends prepare for the intervention by writing letters to the alcoholic or drug addict. Family members then read the letters aloud at the intervention. This allows family members to express their feelings without threatening or blaming the addicted person.

"A family member might say, 'I love you and I care about you, but I'm concerned. These are the things I see happening to you,'" McMahon says. "Then I have each person tie their own feelings to the statements. They might give examples of times they were hurt by the alcoholic. For instance, a child may write, 'You went to my basketball game and everybody knew you had been drinking; I was so embarrassed.'"

Stay Supportive

An intervention for alcohol or drug addiction should stress love and concern, McMahon adds. They should not take a negative, confrontational approach. "I hear so much of the latter—of people being beat up in the intervention," she said. "If the person had any other illness, there's no way we would do that."

McMahon offers a few guidelines for people considering addiction intervention:

  • Participants need to be educated about the disease of addiction prior to the intervention.
  • Letters should be concise, well-rehearsed, and should accentuate the positive.
  • Interventions should take place on neutral territory.
  • People invited to the intervention should include family members, close friends, and, when appropriate, employers or fellow employees.
  • Limit the intervention to about 60 to 90 minutes. At longer sessions, anger may flare up and compassion tends to decline.
  • Schedule an addiction evaluation to follow the meeting.

Help for your Family

Most intervention subjects will agree to the evaluation, McMahon says. But of course that's not always the case.

"That doesn't mean the intervention has failed," she says. "Interventions never fail, because family members and friends get help, and the sooner they get help, the sooner their loved one will. The process plants a seed for recovery in the addicted person's mind. It teaches family members about the disease of addiction, how they may be enabling the addicted loved one, and how support groups such Al-Anon can help them care for themselves."

Intervention: How to Help Someone Who Doesn't Want Help, by Vernon Johnson, a pioneer in the intervention field, is a good guide for people considering intervention for addiction, suggests McMahon.

In McMahon's experience, the subject of an intervention is usually grateful for the care and support shown by family and friends.

"I often have people sit there and cry and say, 'I didn't know what was happening. I'm sorry I've hurt you all. Thank God you did something for me because I didn't know what to do myself.'"

Discuss your Situation

If you call the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation to request an intervention, an addiction specialist will help you think carefully about whether the process is right for your family.  There are times when a formal intervention is advisable. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation does not have interventionists on staff, but we can provide you with information and contacts for professional intervention services.

Harnessing science, love and the wisdom of lived experience, we are a force of healing and hope ​​​​​​​for families and communities affected by substance use and mental health conditions.