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Therapeutic Intervention

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

A therapeutic intervention is an effort to help someone in need who declines treatment or is otherwise unable to help themselves. In some cases, an intervention takes the form of a meeting between the person engaged in self-destructive behavior and concerned friends or family members, sometimes in a confrontational manner. Other cases may not be confrontational, as in the case of concerned family members attempting to help an individual unable to make decisions for themselves. An intervention can take place with or without the guidance of a mental health professional, like an interventionist.

When It's Used

Intervention is a tool that may be used with people who exhibit:

  • Substance abuse/addiction
  • Eating disorders
  • Dangerous sexual habits
  • Risk for suicide
  • Emotional or mood disorders that make them a danger to themselves (or in rare instances others)
  • Dementia
  • Difficulty complying with a medication schedule

An intervention effort is often made to try to prevent people with known problems who cannot or will not help themselves from engaging in self-injurious behavior, or relapsing into substance abuse. Crisis intervention is used when someone is experiencing an immediate crisis, such as a suicide threat or attempt.

Interventions can be applied to individuals and used in group settings, such as rehabilitation centers and psychiatric treatment institutions.

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What to Expect

In the case of self-destructive behavior, a peaceful, respectful confrontation may be planned and organized in advance by one or more concerned people, usually family or friends, and sometimes with the guidance of a professional interventionist. The concerned individuals present the problem to the person who is behaving in a self-destructive way, discuss the effects of their behavior, on themselves and on their loved ones, and present options for help. The intervening individuals must try to get the person to listen to them and accept whatever help is being offered.

In other instances, an intervention could take the simpler form of bringing music into an institutional setting, such as a hospital, to help reduce patients’ stress and regulate other negative emotions.

How It Works

The theory behind therapeutic intervention is that planned, non-threatening mediation can have a positive effect on the person in distress. Interventions can help modify behaviors that interfere with a person’s well-being and the well-being of family and friends.

Although interventions are often staged for individuals, they are also organized for people who reside in institutional settings and for communities at large. For instance, the practice of distributing free and readily available condoms is a common form of behavioral intervention with the goal of preventing sexually transmitted diseases. The goal of any type of intervention is to take action that will make a positive change in the way someone thinks or behaves and to modify or prevent self-destructive behavior. Therapeutic intervention also gives friends or family members an opportunity to directly approach their loved one in a safe and structured manner.

What to Look for in an Interventionist

A professional intervention specialist can help plan a safe, effective, and appropriate intervention strategy, help friends and family members express themselves in the most constructive manner, and prepare them for potential outcomes and consequences.

Professional interventionists should be registered or certified in the state in which they practice. The requirements for certifications vary by state. Common titles for professional interventionists include: CIP (Certified Intervention Professional), LADC (Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor, CAP (Certified Addiction Professional), CCDC (Certified Chemical Dependency Counselor), and CADC (Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor). Reputable rehabilitation centers and addiction specialists may be able to refer you to a professional interventionist.

American Psychological Association: Intervention Models.
Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health. Therapeutic Interventions.
NICE Clinical Guidelines 42. Dementia: A NICE-SCIE guide to supporting people with dementia and their carers in health and social care. Chapter 7: Therapeutic interventions for people with dementia—cognitive symptoms and maintenance of function. 2007. British Psychological Society.
Coleman MT ad Pasternak RH. Effective Strategies for Behavior Change. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice. June 2012;39(2):281-305.
Fishbein M, Hennessy M, Kamb M, et al. Using intervention theory to model factors influencing behavior change. Project RESPECT. Evaluation & The Health Professions. December 2001;24(4):363-84.
Last updated: 10/14/2022