Your Guide to Planning a Substance Use Intervention

Medically Reviewed

A substance abuse intervention is a formalized approach to convincing someone with a drug abuse issue to seek help. Anyone who is trying to persuade another person to get help for their substance abuse issue is performing an intervention, whether they are doing it alone or with a group of other people.

The approach to persuading someone to get help for their substance abuse should be organized and planned in advance. There is certainly no single right way to convince someone to get help, but the following plan is designed to cover all bases and maximize the potential to encourage someone to seek treatment.

Step 1: Make a plan.

The best way to maximize the potential for success in any endeavor is to have a plan ahead of time. Moreover, the probability of convincing someone to seek treatment is enhanced if more than one person is included in the process.

Get between three and six of the person’s closest friends or family members together to plan the intervention. The group should meet ahead of time, discuss what they want to say to the person, and plan for potential responses or objections that the person may use to counter the intervention.

Step 2: Get an expert involved in the process.

Before performing the intervention, the group should speak with an expert. This could be an addiction therapist or a professional interventionist who assists in the planning and implementation of interventions. The professional can offer important information and options that can increase the potential for success. 

In many cases, the interventionist will run the actual event. This can help to keep things on track, manage emotions that can spike during the meeting, and raise the chances of the person committing to treatment.

Step 3: Rehearse multiple times.

It is extremely important that the group does not go into the intervention unprepared. Group members should determine what they will say to the person, write it down, and then practice it with each other before actually performing the intervention.

It can help to run through the structure a few times beforehand. Emotions will be heightened during the meeting, so having familiarity with the structure can be incredibly wise.

Step 4: Decide on a Location.

The best location will have plenty of room to fit everyone. It will also be neutral (not the house of the person with the problem), accessible to everyone, and safe from interruptions. Public places like restaurants are not appropriate. If you are working with a professional interventionist, they will help you choose an appropriate location.

Step 5: Perform the intervention.

Surprisingly, the reason most interventions fail is that they are never performed. Once the group has been determined, the location determined, and the intervention rehearsed, it is time to actually perform the intervention.

Choose a date and time where everyone can be present. Decide who will bring the person to the intervention. In most cases, it is best not to tell the person that they are going to intervention; however, in some intervention models, the subject of the intervention is involved in the whole process. Rely on the professional interventionist to determine how to approach the situation.

Step 6: Choose a spokesperson ahead of time.

It is a good idea to have a spokesperson, such as the interventionist or another professional, to run the intervention. This way, the person who is struggling with addiction does not feel like they are being ganged up on by their loved ones. 

The spokesperson will run the intervention, introduce speakers, and allow the person to respond at the appropriate time. They can also help to manage volatile emotions and keep the event from going off track.

Step 7: Clearly define the issues and avoid blame.

Blaming the individual will not result in positive outcomes. Use careful language to ensure the person doesn’t feel attacked.

  • Avoid using labels like “addict,” “alcoholic,” or “junkie.” These will just make the person defensive.
  • List facts about the person’s substance abuse that are observable. 
  • Discuss the effects of the person’s substance use, such as how it affects their job, relationships, and other important areas of life. Be prepared to back up the observations with facts.
  • Use careful language to avoid blaming the person. Express concern. For example, saying something like, “I am worried you are going to harm yourself by using too much Vicodin,” is better than saying, “Your drug abuse scares me.”
  • Express concern as opposed to blaming or criticizing the person. Stress how much you love them and want to see them get well.

Step 8: Determine the consequences.

It is not unusual for the person to threaten to walk out from the intervention or to refuse to listen. It is important to ensure that the group has agreed upon the consequences for these actions.

You may decide that you will no longer financially support the individual unless they get help. You may not allow them to see their children until they enroll in treatment, or you may disinvite them from family or social events until they stop abusing substances. Whatever the specific consequences, they must be put in place if the person decides against treatment. 

Step 9: Present treatment options.

In the planning stage, the group should research and identify practical treatment options for the person. The group should present at least three different accessible treatment options that the person can immediately become involved in. 

If travel is required for any of these options, the group should have a way to get the person to treatment. Often, the interventionist will escort the person to treatment. 

Travel plans should already be arranged. The person’s bags should be packed, and arrangements should be made to care for their children or pets. Ultimately, the person should have no reason to not immediately proceed to treatment.

Step 10: Get an immediate decision.

Since all arrangements should be made, the person can make an immediate decision about treatment. If they agree to go to treatment, they should immediately be accompanied to the treatment facility. If the person does not agree to get treatment, the outlined consequences should be implemented immediately. 

Sometimes, it takes multiple intervention attempts before a person agrees to treatment. The intervention team shouldn’t view an initial refusal to get treatment as a failure. The first intervention may serve as a stepping-stone to the person’s ultimate decision to enter rehab at a later intervention.

Most organized substance use disorder interventions will achieve some level of success, whether it is getting the person into treatment or getting them to think about their issues. Follow up with the person if they enter treatment and support them. If they refuse treatment, make a plan with the team for a future intervention.

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