When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart

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Drug and Alcohol Interventions: Do They Work?

Understanding what an intervention is and how to use it

Drug and alcohol interventions, during which loved ones nudge an addict toward treatment, have become so popular that an entire show, Intervention, chronicles the lives of people undergoing interventions and pursuing subsequent treatment. While interventions can and do help people get into treatment, they can also undermine relationships, potentially making an addict worse. Whether an intervention is right for your loved one depends on a variety of factors, and there's no way to predict with 100 percent accuracy what will unfold at an intervention.

What Is an Intervention?

An intervention uses peer pressure to encourage an addict to admit to his or her problem and then seek appropriate treatment. During the intervention, a group of close friends and family gather together, and the gathering is usually a surprise to the addict. Each member of the group outlines the ways in which he or she has been harmed by the addict's addiction, pleads with the addict to seek treatment, and then lists the consequences for not seeking treatment. For example, a wife might outline the ways her husband's addiction harms her children and marriage, then say that she will move out of the family home if her spouse does not seek treatment.

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Interventions are emotionally charged, and family members endeavor to be specific about the worst consequences of drug and alcohol abuse. Rather than simply saying that the abuse is harmful, group members may itemize the specific types of suffering they've experienced in an attempt to help the addict see the profound effects of his behavior.

Interventions are often, though not always, overseen by a mental health professional or interventionist who directs the intervention. If the addict agrees to seek treatment, he or she will typically go to treatment shortly after the intervention. Addicts who decline treatment can expect to experience the consequences outlined by their loved ones; the goal of this approach is to make seeking treatment seem like the obvious, easiest, and most rewarding choice.

Do Interventions Work?

There's little data available on the effectiveness of interventions, perhaps because effectiveness is difficult to define. Addicts are more likely to seek treatment when they undergo an intervention, but interventions don't affect the outcome of treatment itself. If an addict seeks treatment without being fully committed to a life of sobriety—as some might do in response to the overwhelming peer pressure of an intervention—he or she may actually be less likely to get better.

In general, an intervention is a last-ditch effort for an addict who has consistently refused treatment or fallen off the sobriety wagon. Consequently, most people who undergo interventions are already heavily entrenched in their addictions. But when addicts have strong social support and access to good treatment, they're more likely to get better; an intervention can serve as a rallying point for a family that is dedicated to helping a loved one achieve wellness.

Risks of Interventions

Interventions don't pose serious health or psychological risks, and won't directly make the addiction worse. Instead, the primary risk posed by interventions is a disruption in your relationship with the addict. Some addicts respond to interventions with anger, storming out before the process is complete. In other cases, the addict may refuse to go to treatment, which will require you to follow up with the threats you've made. Particularly for family members and friends who have a history of enabling, sheltering, or giving money to the addict, this change in the relationship can be painful.

How to Make an Intervention More Effective

A certified mental health professional or interventionist can guide you through the process of your intervention, and professional guidance can help defuse tensions and increase the probability of success. Ultimately, you cannot force someone who doesn't want help to seek it. Advanced planning and sticking to your plan, though, can improve your chances of success. These steps can help:

• Don't schedule an intervention for a time that the addict is likely to be high or stressed. If the addict has to go to work, has recently gone through a breakup, or is otherwise distracted or overwhelmed, he or she will have trouble listening.

• Don't yell at or shame the addict. An intervention is not the place for guilt trips. Instead, your job is to help the addict see how the addiction has harmed people he or she loves. The addict should not come away feeling like a bad or shameful person. Make clear distinctions between the addict and his or her disease.

• Be as specific as possible when itemizing the ways the addict's addiction has affected you. Don't just say, “Your addiction harms our marriage.” Instead, say, “Your addiction has caused you to burn through our life savings and ignore our children.”

• Keep your words short and to the point. A long, rambling rant can be overwhelming. Try writing down what you plan to say in advance, and then keeping it to five minutes or less.

• Devise a specific treatment plan. Requesting that an addict seek treatment can be overwhelming if you don't already have treatment lined up. Ensure that the addict's insurance pays for the program and that it has an opening. You'll also want to ensure that the program fits the addict's values. A program built on the 12-step model, which makes references to a higher power, won't be a good fit for a strident atheist, for example. If the addict wants to look into different programs than the one you've chosen, though, take him or her at their word and offer assistance finding an alternative program.

• Follow through with your consequences. If you promise to stop giving the addict money and then give her money a few days later, you're teaching her that your threats are empty and meaningless. An intervention is an act of last resort, so you'll need to ensure that you are prepared—emotionally and otherwise—to fundamentally change your relationship with the addict after the intervention is over.

An intervention can be emotionally exhausting and even a bit scary, but it's often the only thing that works to finally convince addicts to seek help. For help finding an interventionist in your area, visit the website of the Association of Intervention Specialists.

References:

Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction. (2011, August 23). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-d...

Samuels, H. (n.d.). Do drug interventions work? Retrieved from http://www.thehillscenter.com/family/do-drug-interventions-work/

What NOT to do at a drug intervention. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.michaelshouse.com/intervention/drug-intervention-no-no/

 

Joel Young, M.D., who teaches psychiatry at Wayne State University, is the Medical Director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine, near Detroit.

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