Thanks to media like A&E's “Intervention," most of us have a solid impression of the intervention process. Known initially as the Johnson Intervention, the process involves people close to the addict arranging a surprise confrontation to express the ways the addict's behavior has hurt them, as well as what they will do if the addict does not agree to get treatment. In ideal situations, the meeting ends with the addict entering treatment immediately. But do interventions like this really work?

Theoretically, interventions make a lot of sense. Many addicts experience denial about their addiction, and don't have the clarity of mind to see how deeply their behavior hurts their loved ones and themselves. It's often easier for those close to the addict to recognize the signs and symptoms of addiction and take the earliest steps of encouraging the addict to get help. But does this translate to success?

Interventions And Agreement To Treatment

The easiest way to assess intervention success is to simply see whether the addict agrees to treatment. Research shows that addicts confronted via intervention are more likely to enter treatment, though success rates vary based on intervention style. Newer intervention models are more effective than the traditional Johnson method, with success rates of 75 percent to 83 percent.

This agreement to treatment, however, does not necessarily equate to recovery success. Across five types of referral to addiction treatment, the Johnson Intervention has the second highest rate of relapse, calling into question its true effectiveness at healing addiction. The intervention may get the addict into treatment, but knowing whether this will lead to recovery or relapse is much trickier.

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Potential Harm Of Interventions

If done poorly, interventions can even cause harm. The surprise of a group intervention may cause the addict to feel ambushed or attacked, adding to feelings of distrust, isolation or animosity. Addiction involves a great deal of shame, and adding to existing shame with aggressive blaming during an intervention might cause an addict to retreat further inward. And the very understanding of who the intervention is for may be crucial to the recovery process.

Professional interventionist Kristina Wandzilak stresses that addiction is a family disease, and that placing all of the focus on the recovery of the most addicted member can overlook dysfunctional behavior in the overall family dynamic. Pointing to the addict as the sole contributor to the addiction during an intervention ignores crucial triggering and enabling behavior in those around the addict, and risks isolating and shaming him even further.

Other Forms Of Successful Intervention

Done properly, however, factors particular to the intervention structure can create lasting improvements, regardless of what happens after the intervention. It can be helpful to consider these factors when looking at other ways of defining success in interventions. In particular, an intervention can help by:

  • Breaking the silence: The shame, anger and fear felt by those affected by addiction may make it incredibly difficult to talk about. Simply opening the lines of communication and verbally acknowledging the addiction is a big step towards overcoming isolation and moving towards recovery.
  • Setting better boundaries: Addiction does not occur in a vacuum, and having those closest to the addict confront and overcome their enabling or codependent behavior can be vital to overcoming addiction.
  • Offering treatment: Creating a treatment plan and making its availability obvious to both the addict and their family can be a concrete move forward, regardless of whether the addict is ready to comply.

Considering how vital these aspects are to the treatment process, any well-done intervention might be seen as a successful move towards recovery.