It's Time to Re-Think Interventions

Countless movies and TV shows give us ideas of what friends and family members should do if a loved one is struggling with addiction. Often, an “intervention” comes to mind. Typically these are confrontational meetings where the people closest to the loved one get together and present them with an ultimatum: Stop what you’re doing and go to treatment or we’ll cut you off.

Yet research shows that these “tough love” approaches just don’t work. Reviewing over four decades of research, Bill Miller and Bill White found that not a single study supported the confrontational approach as better than kinder and less harmful treatments. Instead, this review showed that these methods actually worsened addictions and increased treatment dropouts. Read more about tough love and how to help a loved one.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also says:

There is no evidence that confrontational "interventions" like those familiar from TV programs are effective at convincing people they have a problem or motivating them to change. It is even possible for such confrontational encounters to escalate into violence or backfire in other ways.


Tim Harrington takes a fresh approach to interventions, opting to help family members collaborate with, rather than confront their loved one. He also provides ongoing support for family members that matches their role in the healing process. Evo-founder Koorosh Rassekh invited Tim to talk about different ways of thinking about interventions.

Most people get ideas of what an intervention should look like from mainstream TV shows and films. What needs to change about the way most people think about interventions?

Tim: By its nature, the TV version of intervention is a form of assisted-reality--as if the reality of addiction needed assistance. Right off the bat, I’m suspicious of the whole thing.

TV intervention is about entertainment, approaching it from an angle of good versus evil, and this is unfortunate because the viewer is not really getting the bigger picture concerning addiction, but instead receiving more of a mythic storyline or a narrative that’s not inclusive.

I like to say that addiction doesn’t come in bottles and cans, it comes in systems, like a family. The TV version tells the story as if there is a villain, and this mentality or perception isn’t helpful and it actually perpetuates stigma and discrimination.

If we change the idea that an intervention is about a specific path or a specific outcome and tailor it to the inherent uniqueness of each system of addiction, then we have a real chance at making progress. An intervention is not an event but rather a process that intentionally involves everyone who cares about the addicted person. It’s a system renovation.

What’s a different way that loved ones can think about interventions?

Tim: A different way to look at intervention is to refer to it as a renovention. There’s a saying, “It’s hard to be a new person in an old place.” In the current paradigm, the person in treatment gets the majority of the remodeling budget. Inevitably this lead to the unfortunate status of the family as the “old place.”

If the family plans on being in the life of the person in recovery, then how come it’s not more equitable in terms of updating the family to a position of real influence and power? Why shouldn’t the budget for renovention be more evenly distributed so we can produce much better long-term outcomes.

In your work, you often work closely with family members support the whole family system. How do you find common ground within families where there can be different and competing goals?

Tim: The most important aspect of the “change process” is making sure that it’s non-shaming, non-blaming and non-judgmental. In order to do that we get to use primarily “I” statements rather than “you” statements. This keeps us connected to what we have control over and away from things that we cannot control. It also keeps us away from dialogues that are not in our wheelhouse, like diagnosing and therapizing.

We speak to the facts, as they are powerful enough to have an impact without bringing judgements, which shut people off from connection.

Next year, you are planning a bus tour with your family to de-stigmatize addiction. Can you talk a little bit about what motivated you to do this and what you plan to do?

Tim:  Next year we will sell our house, renovate a 40 foot school bus, seriously downsize, board our tiny home on wheels, and crisscross the US for a year and as we like to say, “bus down the walls of stigma,” all while getting to know our amazing country on a very personal level.

This all came about because my wife and I started talking about how people with addiction and mental health challenges feel about themselves and how the rest of society feels about them.

We want to oppose prejudices with facts, to encourage a change in attitudes, language, and the way in which people who use drugs and/or have some kind of mental injury are treated. For us, it is urgent to break the vicious cycle which brings harm to vulnerable people and society.

We will talk about very specific steps one can take to help in the cause, including a "Zero Stigma Pledge.” On our website we will have resources for those who are struggling and for those who are loving someone who is struggling.

We will also be producing blogs, vlogs, FB live events, and our Get on the Bus! Podcast.

We are in the final stages of mapping out where our approximately 35 events will be. Our website and all our social media efforts will keep people informed of exactly where we are so they can “Get on the bus!” and also help us raise awareness.

To learn more about Tim Harrington, you can visit his website Sustainable Recovery. You can also follow his upcoming bus tour at Wide Wonder, as well as their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Evo Health and Wellness is an outpatient addiction treatment program that respects where you are and where you want to go. Clients set goals that work for them, whether they include complete abstinence or moderation. Evo sees success as lasting change in the client’s life, including physical health, movement towards personal goals, and their sense of connection and purpose. Evo’s program integrates psychotherapy, psychiatry, life coaching, and somatic therapy. Learn more about Evo’s program.