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How to Hold an Intervention About Someone’s Drinking

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on August 20, 2020

You may not know what to do when your friend or family member drinks too much. But there are ways you can help them get help. Your support might be a starting point for them to decide to quit alcohol.

Don’t wait until something really bad happens. Speak up when you first notice alcohol is causing trouble in their life. As with many other conditions, early intervention and treatment can help your loved one get better faster.

First, forget the scenes of dramatic interventions in movies or TV, where lots of people surprise someone by staging a meeting that shines a harsh spotlight on your loved one’s issues with alcohol and its consequences. Instead, think of starting a conversation where you’re on their team. And know that your support over time is key.

What Is an Intervention?

It’s a chance for you to talk to your loved one about their drinking habits. Voice your support without judging them or their actions.

Intervention types include:

  • Informal. You casually bring up your loved one’s alcohol use. You can ask them some questions or tell them about some changes you’ve noticed.
  • Formal. This is a planned event. It usually involves a third party, like a mental health professional. It might be the right option if your loved one has a serious drinking problem and they’ve refused help in the past.
  • Brief intervention. This usually takes place in a medical setting. Your doctor will have a short talk with your loved one to assess their drinking habits and provide some treatment options. This tends to be more helpful for people without a formal AUD.

Signs of Alcohol Use Disorder

When someone has an alcohol use disorder, they can’t stop or control their drinking despite it causing problems in their relationships, career, or health. Their condition may be mild, moderate, or severe. Some of the clues include:

  • Drinking more or longer than they planned
  • Tried to cut down more than once but couldn’t
  • Craving alcohol
  • Drinking although it causes problems at home, with family or friends, on the job, or at school
  • Taking risks that could have hurt you during or after drinking
  • Continued to drink although it affected your physical or mental health
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when the alcohol wore off

Whether or not they have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), they might not be able to give up alcohol on their own.

Prepare for the Intervention

Set a goal. What do you want to be the result of the intervention? For instance, are you hoping that your loved one will decide to cut back or quit drinking completely? If they do decide to stop:

  • Will they need medical help to detox?
  • Where can they get treatment?
  • Will they need to manage another medical condition (physical or mental) at the same time?

Talk to a professional. Seek expert advice. If your primary care doctor can’t do that, they may be able to give you a referral. Try to talk to someone who focuses on addiction. Those are specialists such as:

  • Some medical doctors
  • Drug and alcohol abuse counselors
  • Social workers
  • Psychologists
  • Psychiatrists

Tips for a Successful Intervention

Choose the right time. Everyone should be sober. If you’re not sure when your loved one drinks, consider holding the intervention first thing in the morning. You can meet for coffee or breakfast. Schedule it for when they’ll have time. Arrange childcare if needed.

Remove treatment hurdles. Have a plan in place as soon as your loved one is willing to get help. Include a few options, depending on the level of care that they need. Ask your doctor or an addiction specialist if you’re not sure where to start.

Treatment for alcohol use disorders includes:

If you have health insurance, the law requires providers to offer substance use treatment. Check with your provider about which doctors and facilities are covered and for how long, and what you will pay for. If you don’t have health insurance, look for a free or low-cost clinic.

To find care near you, use the locator service on websites such as:

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
  • American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry
  • American Society of Addiction Medicine

You can also call 800-662-HELP (4357), which is part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Who Should Be at the Intervention?

If you invite anyone else, keep the list short. A one-on-one conversation can have a big impact.

Your loved one is more likely to get defensive if they’re faced with a group of people. That’s why some experts advise against a big formal intervention. But if you want to get others involved, only invite people who your loved one likes or respects.

What to Say at an Intervention

Remember your goal: to encourage them to get help.

Don’t launch into all the ways their alcohol use hurts you. They might feel attacked. (That doesn’t mean that you haven’t felt hurt by their drinking, just that this may not be the most helpful time to bring that up.)

Instead, urge them to talk about the pros and cons of their drinking. That can help them find their own reasons to change their habits. That’s called motivational interviewing.

It’s OK to share what you’ve noticed about their drinking, such as if they’re drinking a lot or more often. But follow that up with questions such as:

  • Is there anything you want to talk about?
  • What are the things you like about drinking?
  • Have you noticed that bad things happen when you drink?
  • Do you think your drinking hurts other people?
  • Are you feeling depressed or anxious?
  • Have you thought about getting help?

What Not to Do at an Intervention

You want to give your loved one a chance to safely talk about why they’re drinking. That means you shouldn’t argue, yell, threaten them, or vent anger in a harmful way at them. And don’t hold an intervention if they’re drinking or are drunk.

What to Expect After an Intervention

There’s a chance your loved one will decide to get help. If so, offer to drive them to doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, support group meetings, or do other things that show that you care.

But don’t be surprised if they’re not willing to get help after one or two chats. Remember, an addiction is a medical condition. Alcohol use disorders often last a long time, can be severe, and affect the brain. It’s not about willpower or character.

Stay in their life, as long as it’s safe for you to do so, and keep trying. Tell them you’d like to check in about their drinking the next time you see them. Even if takes them 1 month, 1 year, or longer, let them know you’ll be there when they’re ready to get help.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Stephen Holt, MD, MS, FACP, associate professor of medicine, Yale Medicine; director, Addiction Recovery Clinic, Yale-New Haven Hospital.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: “Alcohol Use Disorder.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “How can family and friends make a difference in the life of someone needing treatment?” “Principles of Effective Treatment,” “Where can family members go for information on treatment options?”

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids: “Intervention eBook.”

American Academy of Family Physicians: “Addressing Alcohol Use Practice Manual.”

CMAJ: “Brief interventions for alcohol misuse.”

American Psychological Association: “Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment,” “Motivational interviewing.”

UK Addiction Treatment Centres: “How to Complete an Alcohol Intervention.”

FindTreatment.gov: “Treatment Options,” “Paying for treatment.” 

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