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August 18, 2017

Why Early Intervention for Addiction Is Critical

intervention for drug or alcohol addictionWhat are the advantages to intervening early when you spot a potential substance abuse problem, and what might “early intervention” look like? Get the life-saving answers that everybody needs to know here:

The practice of waiting for an addict to “hit bottom” and personally realize the hopelessness of his or her situation is going out of fashion. Which is a good thing, because delayed intervention allows addictions to establish physical, mental and emotional footholds that make recovery extremely long and agonizing, and relapse more likely. Paraphrasing the saying about the best and second best times to plant a tree, the best time to take action against substance addiction is before the substance is even used. The second best time is right away.

This article talks about why early intervention for addiction is critical — “early” best defined as “immediate,” lest anyone conclude it’s already too “late” for their family. The article also offers ideas for intervening effectively.


According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, for every $2 of government spending that goes toward keeping addictions from taking hold, more than $96 is spent on “addressing the consequences of our failure to prevent and treat” substance addiction.

The costs of consequence addressing could be considerably reduced if more effort were given toward keeping substance abuse from reaching the critical stage to begin with. Many behavioral-health issues can be spotted up to four years before they become disorders—and the National Institute on Drug Abuse funds sobriety programs to influence even the youngest children. NIDA’s “Principles of Substance Abuse Prevention for Early Childhood” can be adapted for addicts and potential addicts of all ages:

  • Early intervention alters “life course trajectory” before it moves too far in the wrong direction.
  • Early intervention shifts overall life focus toward protective factors (supportive relationships, healthy environments, resilience and other coping skills) before these factors are crowded out by addiction-related influences.
  • Early intervention sets the stage for positive long-term effects when the long term is at its longest.
  • Early intervention touches a wide array of interlinked behaviors to catch a variety of potential problems early.
  • Early intervention ensures that long-term physical effects of substance abuse will be minimized.
  • Early intervention catches the addict while he or she is still in regular contact with healthier environments and influences.
  • Early intervention helps other family members catch and correct, as early as possible, any unhealthy habits of their own that may be contributing to the substance-abuse situation and other problems.

Finally, early intervention just makes things easier all around. The longer any habit has to establish itself as a major part of a person’s life, the harder it is to break. And this is doubly true with chemical addiction, which has major physical effects on the body’s sense of “normal.”


Even after acknowledging the value of early intervention, many people are reluctant because of unnerving pictures painted by popular media. The sensationalized stereotype of “intervention” as an ambush by a mob of acquaintances launching a bombardment of accusations and demands is enough to scare anyone out of trying. And if it’s really done that way, it will probably fail—and deserves to.

For those asking, “Do we have to do a formal intervention?”—not necessarily, especially if the addiction is in a very early stage and involves someone you’ve always been able to speak frankly with. Sometimes, it’s enough for one or two close friends to simply tell the person “We have to talk” about the situation. Even these informal interventions, however, are most effective when kept in line with the formal-intervention principles below.

How to manage a formal intervention:

  • Get professional advice from an intervention-experienced counselor.
  • Be clear on what substance is involved and what specific concerns are associated with it. Have a solid idea of how long your loved one has been using and why, and what other problems have developed.
  • Keep the intervention team to no more than six people. Being subjected to the confrontational equivalent of a surprise party is jarring enough without a sense of being overwhelmingly outnumbered—and you want your loved one to stay as clearheaded and non-defensive as possible.
  • Make sure everyone has the respect of the person to be confronted, and that everyone goes in committed to staying objective and empathetic. Any hint of negativity or hostility could turn the intervention into one big argument that leaves the addicted person even deeper in denial.
  • Plan the intervention “script” carefully—ideally, rehearse in advance as a group—and resolve not to get distracted into arguments over isolated points.
  • Emphasize, throughout, concern for the person and things you value about the relationship. Let them know you believe they can
  • Always conclude by presenting the person with a solid “next step”—preferably an immediate introduction to a source of professional treatment that can be committed to on the spot. Also, be prepared to implement consequences if the person refuses to take that next step.


Even when clearly understood and carefully planned, an intervention is highly stressful for the interveners as well as the addict. And there are two “what ifs” in particular that have kept many people from going through with it.

What if they get mad at me? Face it, they probably will. Under the pressure of what can only be heard as “You’re messing up your whole life,” faced with unmistakable evidence of what they don’t want to admit, few people are inclined to immediate gratitude.

The real question behind the question, though, is “What if they hate me forever?” Be assured, they won’t—unless you respond to initial defensiveness with a self-righteous “You never appreciate what I do for you” attitude, and refuse to participate personally in treatment or admit that anything might be your fault. If you remain empathetic, supportive and humble, your recovering loved one eventually will thank you, and your relationship will be all the stronger.

What if it doesn’t work? It does happen that intervention attempts are met with absolute refusal to get treatment—in which case not much more can be done immediately. Instead, remember to:

  • Not give up hope. One setback (it’s best to not even use the word “failure”) doesn’t prove things are forever hopeless.
  • Consider what might have gone wrong and how that situation might be corrected for another attempt. Common causes of interventions not “working” are: interveners becoming defensive, discussions getting off the subject, and the addict being under the influence at time of intervention.
  • If you’ve promised consequences for refusing treatment, IMPLEMENT THEM. “Wimping out” will put you back in the role of enabler and make any future intervention all the harder.
  • Stay active in your own support network.


  • Early intervention may be critical—but while someone is breathing and moving, there’s no such thing as “too late.” The earliest possible time to act is always right now.
  • Don’t confuse early intervention with “having” to force an immediate resolution: that usually leads to a mismanaged, overly emotional intervention that pushes the addict deeper into denial. Bullying and procrastination are not the sole choices: often, the best immediate action is to find yourself a support network and get help evaluating the situation objectively.
  • Always stay courageous and optimistic!



Carney, Tara, and Bronwyn Myers. “Effectiveness of Early Interventions for Substance-Using Adolescents: Findings from a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, June 14, 2012. Accessed July 26, 2017.

CRC Health. “Early Interventions Can Save Teens from Chronic Alcoholism to [sic] Drug Addiction.” Accessed July 26, 2017.

National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. “Guide for Policymakers: Prevention, Early Intervention and Treatment of Risky Substance Abuse and Addiction.” December 2015. Accessed July 26, 2017.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Prevention of Substance Abuse and Mental Illness.” Updated August 9, 2016. Accessed July 26, 2017.