Interventions: What You Need to Know

When a loved one seems to have lost control of their life or has become a danger to himself or others due to substance abuse or other harmful behaviors, family and friends often try to intervene.

Singer Janet Jackson reportedly tried to stage an intervention for her brother Michael in 2007, two sources close to the Jackson family told CNN. Britney Spears’ family intervened in 2008 through the court after a judge in her custody case cited her for “habitual, frequent, and continuous use of controlled substances and alcohol.” Her father, Jamie Spears, was granted temporary conservatorship over her.

An article in CNN suggests several ways to intervene, noting that interventions can take many forms. Experts say that simply suggesting that a drug addict make an appointment for professional help may work.

Patrick Hart, an intervention specialist in Seattle, Washington, said that speaking openly in a compassionate tone and without judgment is an effective way to approach an intervention. He said that the addiction or other problem should be viewed as an illness that deserves professional care.

“Do not expect an addicted loved one to simply stop within their own right,” Hart said. “Offer specified help.”

Another form of intervention is a more formal, direct approach involving family members and close friends. It’s best to hire a professional interventionist for these meetings. Before the meeting, the interventionist meets with family members and friends to get a history of what has happened.

Loved ones will often explain in writing that they are involved in the intervention because they love the addict, and then detail the ways the addict’s behavior has hurt them or concerned them. For example, if the person is married, his or her spouse may not permit him or her back into the home. If the person is living with family, the relatives may warn that he or she won’t be welcome back.

Before the intervention, the interventionist will help the family create specific consequences if the addict does not agree to go into treatment, and the interventionist will talk with the family about the possibility of the addict running away.

Dr. Bankole Johnson, chairman of psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia, said it’s best to treat the addiction as a medical problem and stress the physical consequences of it. According to him, simply telling a person that he or she has a problem with alcohol or drugs is often not as effective as saying, “You seem to be having difficulties with your sleeping, or you seem to be having difficulties with your breathing.”

In most states, treatment for addiction cannot be forced by family members of friends—that’s where the legal system comes in. However, it is very difficult to prove in court that a person is not able to manage his or her life because of an addiction.

Different states have different laws, but a conservatorship—when someone takes legal charge of another person’s decisions—is only granted if a person is a threat to other people or to themselves, Johnson said. Generally, he said, the person has to commit a crime such as driving while intoxicated before the legal system gets involved in ordering treatment.

But sometimes the very threat of police intervention is enough to prompt an addict to treatment, said Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at Hazelden Foundation.

Experts stressed that family members and friends should not wait until the person they’re concerned about “hits rock bottom” before attempting to get help from a professional.

“Very rarely does someone wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to change,'” said Mike Loverde, who was addicted to prescription painkillers eight years ago and now is the director of program services at the Intervention Services Inc. branch outside Chicago.