Watching someone you care about deal with a substance use disorder will lead to emotions ranging from heartbreak to frustration, anger, disappointment, and hope. Knowing that substance use disorder is a disease that can be managed, there may come a point at which you decide to step in and recommend a loved one seek treatment. That’s where intervention comes in.

What is Intervention?

You probably imagine intervention the way you’ve seen it on television and movies: Friends and family all gather around a person with a substance use disorder, confronting, cajoling, badgering or begging them to get help. At best, it’s emotionally overwhelming, and at worst, it’s an ambush that ends in anger.

In real life, substance use intervention is a little different. While it is designed to persuade someone with a substance abuse disorder to get treatment, effective intervention is structured and solution-oriented. Instead of confronting someone, you offer them an opportunity – to understand they have a disease and get the medical help needed to manage it. Less about anger and blame, the process is more about education and assistance.

Who is Involved?

Friends, family, colleagues, and an intervention professional may all be involved in the intervention process. A person with a substance use disorder may not fully recognize the extent to which the disease has affected his life – or even recognize that he has a disease at all. Those participating in the intervention can provide examples of the way the disorder has impacted relationships, work performance, and health. The goal isn’t to attack or to air grievances; it’s to create awareness of the affects of the disease and offer solutions by way of treatment.

What is an Intervention Specialist?

An intervention specialist is a medical professional – a drug and alcohol use counselor, a psychologist or an interventionist – who has specific knowledge of substance use disorders. Including a specialist in your intervention has many benefits. A professional interventionist can:

  • look at the specifics of your situation and formulate the best approach
  • offer guidance for treatment options
  • provide a neutral location for the conversation
  • offer education and specific facts about addiction and its effects
  • diffuse emotional reactions and keep the conversation on point
  • escort someone to a substance use disorder assessment or treatment facility

While you don’t need an interventionist to speak to a loved one, it may be especially helpful if you expect the conversation to go poorly. If a person with a substance use disorder also has a mental illness or has ever threatened to harm themselves or others, a professional will be better equipped to handle their initial reaction and to guide the process toward a positive outcome.

When is it Time for an Intervention?

From the first moment you believe that someone you love has a substance use disorder, you can intervene. The earlier you start treating any chronic condition, the better you’re able to manage it – and substance use disorder is no exception.[1]

Scientific research has established the Stages of Change[2] <link to The Science of Change Recovery article>, showing the ways in which a person progresses from not even realizing a change is necessary to actually making a change and then maintaining it. We all move through the stages at our own pace[3], but information and encouragement can influence our progress. An intervention won’t force someone who isn’t ready to change to enter treatment, but it may provide that person with additional information or motivation that will eventually bring about that change.

What Should You Do to Prepare?

Since the goal of an intervention is to persuade a person with a substance use disorder to seek treatment, you should have treatment options ready in case that person agrees to get help. Call your doctor or an addiction treatment facility to schedule an initial assessment to diagnose the substance use disorder. You can talk with the doctor in advance about potential treatment options and insurance or financing details, and then contact appropriate inpatient or outpatient treatment centers to reserve a space. You may want to pack a bag that includes everything the person going to treatment will need so they can leave immediately after accepting the offer to get help.

Will Intervention Work?

When conducted under professional supervision, research has shown that intervention is often successful.[4] There are also studies that report that 75% of the two million people who’ve entered substance use treatment facilities say their friends and family were one of the major reasons they sought help.[5]

It’s important to remember that there are many ways in which to measure the success of an intervention. Ideally, a person will agree to seek help for a substance use disorder and will enter treatment immediately. However, even if a person decides not to seek treatment, an intervention may have an impact.

If an intervention truly serves its purpose to provide information and solutions, a person with a substance use disorder may start to understand it’s not a lack of willpower but an actual disease. They may see how their disorder impacts their relationships and work. They’ll also understand what treatment is available and what it involves. As mentioned earlier, small realizations can make a big difference in helping a person move through the Stages of Change <link to The Science of Change article>. They may move from “precontemplation,” when they don’t even realize there’s an issue, to “contemplation,” when they actually start considering getting help. They may even move on to “determination” – when they start making the mental and physical preparations to get treatment.

It’s scary any time you discover someone you love has a chronic illness – whether it’s heart disease, diabetes, or a substance use disorder. Encouraging them to get treatment as soon as possible can make a big difference in how the disease can be managed.[6] If you’re thinking about having an intervention for someone you love, be sure to read <Conducting an Intervention>. You’ll find more information, useful techniques, and the support you need to help someone you love get treatment – and get back to living a substance-free life.


[1] 4National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research Based Guide.”

[2] 3Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983


[4] Loneck B1, Garrett JA, Banks SM. A comparison of the Johnson Intervention with four other methods of referral to outpatient treatment. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 1996 May;22(2):233-46.

[5] McCrady B. 2006. Family and Other Close Relationships. In Wm. Miller & K Carroll (Eds) Rethinking Substance Abuse. Gilford Press. New York, NY