What Is an Intervention and How Do They Work?

Drug and alcohol addiction is a condition that doesn’t stop at the individual who lives with it. If you are close to someone suffering from addiction, you know that the harm involved is something you witness and experience in your own life too. The first-person experience of seeing a friend or loved one struggle with addiction can be devastating. However, we can use an intervention to help your loved one enrol in a lasting treatment programme that will truly make a difference in their recovery.

Many people think they know what an intervention is. However, when the realisation strikes that a close friend or family member’s substance abuse issue may be a treatable addiction, suddenly, the next steps seem foggy. In practice, an intervention takes some knowledge and planning to complete successfully.

Types of Interventions

There are a few different approaches relating to the person’s pattern of drinking or drug use that need to be considered when intervening in an addiction. All interventions work by communicating the reality of the destructive behaviour being witnessed in a clear, controlled way. The ultimate goal is to aid the person concerned in their journey towards accepting and entering treatment.

Classic Intervention

In a classic intervention, a planning team of concerned family members, an intervention specialist, and/or extremely close friends orchestrate a formal meeting to bring attention to a loved one’s problematic drug or alcohol abuse and need for treatment.

In a regular intervention, the person living with addiction is not involved with or informed of planning before the meeting occurs, and once it occurs, it will only do so once. This type of intervention takes place in a controlled environment, mediated by a trained addiction professional and experienced counsellor.

Boundaries and specific consequences are outlined during the intervention that must be adhered to regardless of the addicted person’s decision to accept treatment. After the intervention meeting, the addressed individual may enter addiction treatment, but daily life continues normally for the family.

Systemic Family Intervention

Systemic family interventions acknowledge that addiction affects the entire family in ways that need intervention and treatment from day one, differing greatly from the traditional method. This model aims to support the whole family as a unit and does not exclude the addicted individual from the planning process. Instead, it takes place through multiple mediated meetings between all affected family members.

Conversations in these meetings are a dialogue; it is acceptable to discuss in a controlled manner how family behaviour and addictive behaviour relate. Ultimately, the goal is to support all involved parties in the types of therapeutic care they need to heal together – be that an addiction treatment centre or other forms of therapy.


A formal group intervention may not be necessary in 100% of cases of substance use. If the behaviour is new, and particularly if the person who needs help has a highly trusted and influential family member to turn to, a one-on-one intervention may work better than a larger meeting that puts them on the spot.

This type of intervention shares the same goals as the others and may still be scripted and need to be planned to the same degree as a traditional approach. One-on-one intervention is most commonly used in cases when a young person or teenager has only recently started developing a substance use disorder.


When most people imagine an intervention, they often think of them as emergency actions that take place after a ‘rock bottom’ experience, such as a near-death overdose or sudden shift in life circumstances. If a crisis has occurred, approaching your loved one with an intervention in the proceeding aftermath can be a critical moment for a wake-up call.

The driving reason for this is that to accept treatment, the person in the chair needs to understand the scope and negative consequences of their drinking or drug abuse. Some evidence suggests that the trauma of a risky overdose can be a success factor for some people in treatment – there is real cause to be hopeful even in the direst circumstances.

That said, “rock bottom” does not define a successful intervention and is too dangerous to consider waiting for. What truly makes the difference in guiding a person’s acceptance is how loved ones’ clearly and openly communicate warm support, consistent boundaries, and a recovery mindset from the start.

Planning a Classic Substance Abuse Intervention

  1. Enlist a professional interventionist: An interventionist is a type of addiction and mental health professional trained in planning and executing substance abuse interventions. They bring specialist knowledge of addiction and treatment to the planning stages and are also trained to keep all parties’ communication productive, empathetic, and on track. Keep in mind that your loved one may be agitated and upset, drunk, or high when surprised with an intervention – a trained professional can help prevent conflict from occurring.
  2. Gather Trusted Participants: Your intervention team should consist of people that are close to and trusted by the individual, have witnessed their addictive behaviour, and have clear stakes in their well-being – generally consider siblings, parents, spouses, and life-long friends. For the most effective intervention, everyone who will be present at the meeting itself should attend all gatherings during the planning stages.
  3. Research: When going into an intervention, knowledge is your best tool. Now is the moment to cast out your net and do some research into your loved one’s substance use disorder from the standpoint of mental illness and physiology, steps to recovery, and treatment plans. This keeps you from being dismissed when the time for talking comes and will help you down the line as well, as you support your loved one through the recovery process.
  4. Make Your Plan: An intervention is a delicate situation that demands a carefully planned process. The more details you can decide on in your planning meeting, the better, but the crucial things to figure out are the location, the message, the goal, and the follow-up.Your location should ideally be somewhere safe and private, such as in your own living space. When thinking about your message, plan out what each person will say together as a group, focusing on honest ‘I’ statements and clear boundaries. If your goal is to convince your loved one to seek treatment, reach out to the facility in advance to see if you are able to get them started on the same day as the actual intervention. Consider how you will follow up on your goals and, most importantly, adhere to boundaries if your loved one refuses treatment.
  5. Rehearse: Make sure you’ve run through and practised what you’re going to say before sitting down and speaking with your loved one. Write it down, say it in the mirror, and do what you need to do to make sure you sound as confident and clear as possible when the time comes.
  6. Prepare for All Outcomes: Over 90% of people who receive a professional addiction intervention make a commitment to seek treatment, but the unfortunate truth is not all interventions are successful.If this happens, you need to be prepared to stick to any ultimatums you make. This is difficult for anybody, but remember that doing so is a powerful way to encourage them to seek support for their addiction in the long run. Enabling destructive behaviours, hiding consequences, and facilitating use, only causes more harm to your loved one and their friends and family.

Seek Treatment for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence

A formal intervention provides a clear shot at encouraging your loved one into substance addiction treatment – but it is a daunting task. There’s no reason to do it alone. At Addcounsel, we offer professional medical advice and intervention specialist support designed to help your loved one understand the reality of their addictive behaviours and start accessing the addiction services they need.

Contact us today to speak with one of our intervention specialists or hear more about our treatment process.


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