What Is an Intervention?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on October 24, 2022
6 min read

It’s a chance for you to talk to your loved one about their alcohol or drug habits. You could also talk to them about gambling or other behaviors. Voice your support without judging them or their actions.

Figuring out how to help them can be tricky. And it might be difficult to know the right time to hold an intervention. Here are a few telltale behavioral signs to watch out for:

Out-of-character behavior. They may tell lies or seem secretive. Or they get angry or moody without much reason.

Physical signs. For example, if they have an addiction to alcoholic beverages, check for bloodshot eyes or the smell of alcohol on their breath.

A higher tolerance level. They need to drink, smoke, or gamble more than they used to get a similar effect.

Symptoms of withdrawal if they try to stop for short periods of time. These include physical signs like sweating, seizures, and trouble sleeping. A racing heart, sleeping more than usual, or appearing tired are also signs. Another is they can’t meet responsibilities at work, home, or school because of addiction.

Awareness. Open the person's eyes to the effect their substance misuse or other issue has on themselves as well as family and friends.

Motivation. Get the person to agree that they have a problem and need help.

Action plan. Create a strategy for recovery with step-by-step goals and guidelines.

You’ll need to take these steps before the event:

Learn about the type of addiction.Before you stage an intervention, try to learn as much as possible about the specific type of addiction and the types of treatment available to help your loved one. For example, you can reach out to a rehabilitation or treatment program and ask about the enrollment process ahead of time.

Set a goal. What do you want to see happen after 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?

Reach out to family, friends, and experts. 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

You’ll be better prepared for the intervention and for any questions that family or friends may have. This person can also help you with a backup plan. It’ll come in handy if your loved one finds out what’s happening and refuses to meet.

Make a plan. You’ll need to agree on a time, date, and location. Schedule the intervention for a time of day or day of the week when your loved one is less likely to be stressed or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Arrange child care if needed. To avoid a no-show from the person you’re trying to help, it’s best to keep the details under wraps until the day of the intervention. In some cases, you might be able to do it at a professional’s office.

It’s important to agree to the same message. This helps the intervention team stay on topic. If possible, team members should meet before the intervention and rehearse what they plan to say.

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 their drinking hasn’t hurt you, just that this may not be the most helpful time to bring it up.

Instead, urge them to talk about the pros and cons of their habit. 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, 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?

You can gently set boundaries or communicate consequences if they’re not willing to get help. For example, you might say you’ll no longer join them if they want a drink or two to unwind after work. Or you may ask them to move out of your home. But don’t use ultimatums unless you’re ready to follow through with what you say.

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, try to keep the list short. Only invite people your loved one likes or respects.

An intervention could trigger strong emotional and physical responses from family members, friends, and the person on the receiving end. This can range from anger and betrayal, to resentment and denial. Having an “interventionist” there could help you manage this. Typically, interventionists are doctors or licensed counselors. It could be the expert you spoke with before putting everything together or someone they refer you to.

Your loved one may feel startled when they find a group of their close family and friends together in one place. Make sure to calmly express why they’re there and follow the intervention plan. It’s possible for the loved one to feel attacked, isolated, or stay in denial of the addiction. Offer help in the form of a treatment plan or behavioral changes. Provide or open a discussion for a timeline to change patterns of behavior or get appropriate help.

Make a plan to follow up.After the intervention, have a plan to follow up with your loved one. A close family member like a parent, spouse, or sibling can help them stick to their treatment or follow through with changes in behavior. This can help your loved one avoid a relapse. You can also choose to attend their recovery therapy sessions to provide support.

You want to give your loved one a chance to safely talk about what they’re doing. That means you shouldn’t argue, yell, threaten them, or vent anger in a harmful way at them.

Stick to the plan. Your friend or family member may attempt to change the topic or direct the conversation away from themselves. Don't let that happen.

Insist on an answer. Tell your loved one they must agree to a treatment plan at the intervention. Don't accept a request for "a day or two to think about it." They may go into hiding or on a binge.

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.

Treatment for substance misuse or a gambling addiction includes:

  • Medication
  • One-on-one therapy
  • Family or group therapy
  • Inpatient or outpatient treatment

If the person has health insurance, the law requires providers to offer substance misuse treatment. Work with your loved one to find out which doctors and facilities are covered and for how long, and what the out-of-pocket costs will be. If they 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 (800-662-4357), which is part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Your loved one may decide to get help. If so, offer to drive them to doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, or support group meetings. Or look for other things to do that show you care.

But don’t be surprised if they’re not willing to get help after one or two chats. Remember, addictions are a medical condition. 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. Even if it takes a month, a year, or longer, let them know you’ll be there when they’re ready to get help. Each attempt to reach out could be the one that finally makes a difference.