How a Family Alcoholism Intervention Works

Family intervention with a professional therapist
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Sometimes when the addict's or alcoholic's problems reach the crisis level, the only choice left to his family is professional intervention.

What is a family intervention? Basically, it comes down to confronting the alcoholic with how his drinking has affected everyone around him. The alcoholic's family, friends, and employers tell the alcoholic in their own words how his (or her) drinking has been a problem in their lives.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

But it is not as simple as that. If not done properly, a poorly-planned intervention attempt can cause the family more, deeper, and long-lasting problems.

Professional Help Can Avoid Disaster

Interventions should be carefully planned and developed by professional substance abuse counselors who are experienced in such procedures. The only purpose of an intervention is to get the alcoholic to go into a treatment program.

Most alcohol and drug treatment centers have counselors who are trained to help families prepare for the confrontation, which always takes place in a "controlled" environment, specifically selected to put the alcoholic in a position in which he is most likely to listen. Many times these interventions take place in the workplace, with the full cooperation of the employer.

Sometimes, the intervention comes as a total surprise to the alcoholic, but recently new techniques have been developed in which the members of the intervention team tell the alcoholic that they are talking with a counselor about his drinking problem several days prior to the actual intervention.

Do Family Interventions Work?

With the new method, the alcoholic realizes that the most important people in his life are meeting about his problem, and when he is finally invited to the discussion, he does not feel as "ambushed" as with the earlier intervention techniques.

If the alcoholic does decide to enter the treatment center, he is more apt to be less angry than with the former procedure of surprising him with the confrontation. He feels less manipulated and usually enters the program with the attitude of trying to get better from the start.

With the old method, many times the alcoholic agreed to the treatment, but started the recovery process with an "attitude."

Some Risks Are Involved

Professional intervention is not an option for every family and every situation. The decision to choose the intervention path is one that should be made carefully and with the advice of an experienced counselor. There are some potential risks.

As one health care professional put it: "There are a fair number of substance abuse treatment centers who have stopped doing these interventions because when the intervention fails, as it sometimes inevitably does, the family can be further torn apart by all the bad feelings about the intervention. Not a small point for a family already on the edge of destruction from having an actively alcoholic member."

Dealing With a Failed Intervention

"The intervention may fail if the alcoholic doesn't make some important transitions during and after formal treatment, but the alcoholic identified patient may very well storm out of the intervention session and the family will have to pick up the pieces of a failed intervention on top of the rest of their problems."

There are others who believe no intervention can be successful in the long run, because of their experience that most alcoholics can't be helped until they are ready to reach out for help on their own. Although the confrontation itself may, in fact, put the alcoholic in the frame of mind to be "ready" to get help, it can also be a point of resentment in the future.

Success Depends on the Alcoholic's Commitment

There is no known "cure" for alcoholism. It can be treated, but never "cured." The intervention will work only if the alcoholic becomes committed to never take another drink.

If the alcoholic's problems have progressed so that he has become a danger to himself or others, or if his alcoholism has reached the point that he is no longer capable of looking out for himself, an intervention can be a life-saving choice. But it is not a permanent cure. Only the alcoholic himself can turn a 28-day treatment program into a life-long program of recovery.

Deciding to approach the alcoholic in your life with a confrontational intervention can produce some potentially very undesirable consequences.

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