by Thaddeus Camlin, Psy.D.
Practical Recovery Treatment Center, San Diego, CA
Posted January 24, 2020
If a loved one is struggling with addictive problems and not interested in treatment, the overwhelming message from society is that staging an addiction intervention is the best way to help. Interventions, like the ones depicted on television, generally involve a paid interventionist who coaches family members and friends on how to confront so-called ‘addicts’ and get them to agree to go to rehab. For some, it may be surprising to learn that addiction interventions are only successful in encouraging a loved one to enter treatment around 30% of the time.
Furthermore, when interventions are not successful they can backfire in truly horrific ways. Thus, it might be helpful to consider these five factors before staging an intervention.
1. Other Options are More Effective
Research clearly shows that other approaches are more effective in encouraging a loved one to get help. For example, CRAFT is successful in encouraging a loved one to get help about 65% of the time, far superior to the success rate of about 30% in classic interventions.
2. When Addiction Interventions Don’t Work, the Fallout Can be Devastating
The potential damage of gathering all of someone’s friends and family together and threatening to abandon that person during a time of need might seem obvious to some, however, when a self-proclaimed addiction expert is telling people that the best way to encourage change is to “confront the addict’s denial,” it is understandable that some families and friends listen. When interventions backfire, they sometimes backfire in a fashion even more dramatic than the intervention itself. People can leave interventions feeling betrayed, scared, and completely alone – a perfect recipe for a heroic ingestion of substances that, sometimes, results in overdoses and fatalities.
Psychological reactance is a real human phenomenon, and backing someone into a corner is a great way to elicit it. When we feel our autonomy impinged upon, it is natural to act in a way that re-establishes it. Thus, when people are confronted in an intervention, increased resistance to change is a more likely outcome than agreement to change.
4. Some Interventionists Believe Only in 12-Steps
Multiple pathways to recovery is a clearly defined reality in the field of treating addictive problems. However, some interventionists believe 12-Step approaches are the only way to recover and would lump a loved one’s request to participate in something like medication-assisted treatment or SMART Recovery under the categories of denial and drug-seeking behavior. If you believe your loved one would benefit from a self-empowering approach to overcoming addictive problems, an addiction intervention may not be the best way to encourage change. Asking a potential interventionist what her or his thoughts are about self-empowering approaches is a good way to gauge openness to multiple pathways to recovery.
5. Interventions can Hinder Engagement in Treatment
Even if a loved one does agree to go to treatment after an intervention, they may get to treatment resentful and determined to get nothing out of it. Many times people agree to go to treatment after an intervention to buy themselves some time and to avoid the consequences threatened at the intervention, not because they are ready to change. Additionally, as noted in the book Beyond Addiction, research shows that people who enter rehab after an addiction intervention are more likely to relapse upon discharge than people who enter treatment without an intervention. External motivators, like an intervention, are much less likely to result in lasting change than internal motivators. Offering choices rather than ultimatums is a great way to increase a loved one’s sense of autonomy and the likelihood of genuine engagement in treatment and sustained change.