Real interventions aren’t like the ones on TV, and families turning to interventionists to save the lives of their loved ones often have misconceptions about the obscure industry. We talked to five certified interventionists who gave insight into the world of interventions, explained how reality TV changed the industry and described the life-changing process that gives hope to families with nowhere else to turn.
‘This is an Intervention’
Keith Bradley spent weeks coaching the team, counseling the loved ones. They had an answer for any problem, a response to any situation.
If she bolted, a walk-out team was in place. If she cried, they knew the words to say. When she accepted help, a treatment center was ready.
Bradley was the one who took her to the facility. After rehab, he’ll be the one to help her transition to a sober living environment. He’ll be involved in the entire recovery process, like he is for every family he helps.
When she walked in the room that day, she knew what it was. “This is an intervention,” she said. “I’ve seen the show.”
In an interview with DrugRehab.com, Bradley described the intervention he had orchestrated the weekend before. The Colorado interventionist who has helped more than 200 families convince a loved one to find treatment knows he has to be there every step of the way.
“I’m in recovery myself,” he explained. “I’ve lived in that person’s head. They can’t con me, and they can’t manipulate me. They can manipulate their families. They’ve spent a lifetime pushing their buttons.”
The intervention was smooth that weekend. There was no yelling or screaming. No violence. Only love, compassion and hope.
The family he helped didn’t have an experience like they had seen on reality TV.
“They think if they refuse to go to treatment that their family is never going to do anything with them. Or the sheriff is in the bushes.”
Shows like “Intervention” have been praised for breaking down barriers to treatment, for bringing the disease of addiction to the forefront of public conversation and for raising awareness about the role interventionists play in the recovery process.
But they have also been criticized for dramatizing the intervention process, for misleading participants and for exploiting people with substance use disorders during their most vulnerable moments.
Bradley calls the shows a “double-edged sword.”
“As far as bringing the possibility of doing an intervention into play, I think they’ve made a significant difference,” he said. But he and other industry experts believe the shows’ all-or-nothing approach displays a distorted view of the intervention process.
“That’s the double-edged sword that the show brings,” Bradley said. “They think if they refuse to go to treatment that their family is never going to do anything with them. Or the sheriff is in the bushes.”
Five certified interventionists from across the country talked to DrugRehab.com about the impact reality TV shows have had on what was once an obscure industry. Each agreed that the shows have raised awareness but stressed that the process isn’t as dramatic or quick as it is on TV. They described how they recovered from addiction and found hope in helping others.
The Double-Edged Sword
More than 22 million Americans have a substance use disorder that requires treatment, but only 11 percent of them seek treatment, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
That’s where interventions come in.
Numerous studies indicate that friends and family play a vital role in motivating people with addiction to change their behavior. Social consequences, such as being cut off emotionally or financially, are important motivators for seeking treatment, according to a 2002 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.
“Oftentimes, interventions are the only way you’re going to get somebody who is resistant to treatment to accept care,” said Stephen Wilkins, a Colorado interventionist who has helped more than 700 families. “Unless they commit a crime and are mandated into treatment through the legal system. Sometimes [interventions] are the only way.”
A&E’s “Intervention” is by far the most popular intervention show on TV. It regularly features famous interventionists such as Candy Finnigan, Jeff VanVonderen and Ken Seeley. Several other reality TV shows, such as “Addicted” on TLC, “Intervention Canada” on the Slice Network, “Teen Trouble” on Lifetime and “Codependent” on the Lifetime Movie Network, have followed similar scripts.
But does reality TV accurately depict how interventions are handled? On TV, many families threaten to sever all ties to a person if they do not accept help.
“Under the model I use, there’s nobody jumping ship.”
“The television show uses a completely different format than I do,” said Bradley, who uses a variation of the Love First Model. He said that in about half of his interventions, he has to overcome misconceptions about the process and assure the person being intervened on that it isn’t like TV.
“Every single one, you have to assure them that the only reason the people have assembled around them is that they love and care,” he said. “Under the model I use, there’s nobody jumping ship.”
As Seen on TV: The Johnson Model
The intervention conversation has to start with the Johnson model.
Created in the ‘60s by reverend Vernon Johnson during a church study group, the Johnson model is based on a group confrontation with someone with a substance use disorder. Friends and family read letters and list consequences for refusing treatment.
Ring a bell? It’s the one that’s been portrayed on hundreds of reality TV episodes.
It’s the only one interventionist Jack Bloomfield knew about for the majority of his four decades in recovery. It’s the only one they know about at his recovery meetings when the word intervention was brought up. And it’s the only one many mental health professionals know about.
“I presented to the EAP conference in the state of Florida at their annual convention,” Bloomfield said. “There were 40 therapists in the room. About 35 had never heard of ARISE as an intervention process. These are professional, licensed marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors and social workers. They thought intervention was what they saw on TV.”
Bloomfield practices the ARISE (A Relational Intervention Sequence for Engagement) model of intervention. It’s a less confrontational process that includes several family meetings. The person being intervened on is invited to the meetings, not tricked into attending.
“There were 40 therapists in the room… They thought intervention was what they saw on TV.”
“Back in 1975, there was no such thing as rehabs,” Bloomfield said. “I think there was Hazelden in Minnesota, but no one talked about it. You go to support group meetings, you go to jail or you end up in the cemetery. I went into a support group meeting in 1975, and I didn’t realize that was going to be where I was going to find a new way of life without drugs or alcohol.”
He walked into his first recovery meeting at age 20 thinking it was his only hope, his last hope, for recovery. Today, he’s been in recovery for 40 years. After retiring from a successful business career and working in marketing and outreach for a rehab clinic for six years, Bloomfield decided he wanted to help people more directly. He started researching the path to becoming an interventionist three years ago.
“All I knew was the old-fashioned Johnson model,” Bloomfield said. “You write the letters. You ambush the person. You force them to go to treatment. You say ‘If you don’t go to treatment, you’re getting kicked out of the house.’ It was about consequences.”
ARISE interventions lead to individuals seeking treatment 83 percent of the time.
The ARISE model appealed to him because it focused on the whole family and didn’t involve coercion. After helping more than 30 families through the six-month ARISE process, he was invited to serve on an exclusive faculty team that teaches aspiring ARISE interventionists. But he doesn’t think he’ll be on TV someday.
“If you put an ARISE intervention on TV, it doesn’t have the drama,” Bloomfield said. “It doesn’t have the close-ups of someone going into a rage and turning over a table and walking out of the intervention. It’s about love, courtesy and compassion.”
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The Downside of Reality TV
Each interventionist we interviewed agreed that reality TV interventions raised awareness, letting families know they had somewhere to turn when everything else they tried failed. That’s the only positive they mentioned, though.
Multiple interventionists said families were scared away from the intervention process because of the drama they saw on TV.
“I have had families say to me ‘we thought about doing an intervention three or four years ago, and we watched the TV show and it scared us and we decided not to do it,’” Wilkins said.
Many interventionists also said the shows dramatize addiction, showing only the worst-case scenarios.
“When the families call me, things are bad,” said Jake Jansen, a Milwaukee interventionist. “It’s always an emotional time, but I definitely think they take it to extremes. Nine out of 10 addicts live in a house and work a job. They’re usually not out on the streets.”
However, Bradley said the experiences of families he works with are often filled with turmoil, drama and desperation.
“You’ve got to understand, when my phone rings, its extreme cases — always,” Bradley said. “The one thing that is consistent with every call is the desperation in their voice. In a lot of cases, it is the last-ditch effort.”
In 2011, researchers at the University of Illinois analyzed “Intervention’s” first six seasons. They identified several discrepancies between the show’s portrayal of interventions and what research says.
The study concluded that:
- The show misrepresents the desirability, availability and success rates of treatment.
- It presents family instability as a primary cause of addiction instead of one of many contributing factors.
- It overemphasizes childhood trauma as a cause of future substance abuse.
“‘Intervention’ shows individuals with very severe substance use disorders,” the study’s co-author Douglas Smith told DrugRehab.com. “That is why it makes for such marketable television. Yet on the other hand it creates a skewed perspective about what addiction really looks like.”
Smith is an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois. He worked with Jason Kosovski, who specializes in reality TV research. Kosovski explained how reality TV can mislead viewers into thinking what they see is authentic.
“Part of the troubling nature of this show, and other reality television programs, is the explicit claims to truth which don’t nuance that what is on the screen is both narratively constructed and heavily edited,” Kosovski said.
“I use the show ‘COPS’ as an example. If one were to only watch ‘COPS,’ one could be left to think that all police officers are involved in chases with guns drawn every day and that you should never travel to Florida, Nevada or Texas.”
“What is on the screen is both narratively constructed and heavily edited.”
Missing the Mark
Each expert interviewed for this story understood that the goal of shows like “Intervention” was to entertain. They aren’t public service announcements. If they inspire others to find help, then it’s icing on the cake.
But when “Intervention’s” creator and executive producer Sam Mettler described why families and people with substance use disorders agreed to be on the show, he claimed it was to help others.
“It is attractive treatment? Of course,” Mettler told ABC News in 2008. “But the addicts do our show out of altruism — they truly want to help other people by sharing their stories. They don’t want anyone to become like them.”
The experts I spoke to said they weren’t aware of the show inspiring anyone to get help.
“I tended to move away from those shows when I was in active addiction because it was a reminder of a lifestyle that I didn’t want.”
“I hear all the time, ‘the person I’m intervening on never misses an episode,’” Bradley said. But they didn’t get help until Bradley intervened.
The shows didn’t inspire Jake Jansen to get treatment.
The interventionist grew up in a “stable, middle-class family” in the Milwaukee suburbs. He experimented with drugs at a young age, and his drug use escalated throughout high school and college. He started a career but was busted for possession of mushrooms and marijuana while driving under the influence.
He switched to OxyContin and then to heroin when the painkillers became harder to get. He was aware of his addiction and its consequences when he watched “Intervention,” but it didn’t help him recover.
“I tended to move away from those shows when I was in active addiction because it was a reminder of a lifestyle that I didn’t want,” Jansen told DrugRehab.com. “I didn’t have the ability to get clean. We’d watch those things, and I could relate to it and wonder when I’m going to get out of the cycle.”
Jansen eventually chose treatment over years in prison after getting busted again in 2010. He spent nine months in a work release program, but he found a passion for helping others recover from addiction while he was there. When he got out, he became a recovery coach and a certified intervention specialist.
In the past four years, he’s helped about 60 families using the Johnson model or the ARISE model. He knows the desperation families feel when they reach out for help, and he’s critical of how TV shows recruit participants.
“They have thousands and thousands of applicants that applied [to be on the show],” he said. “All of them were told you aren’t bad enough to receive our help, and that can really leave a bad taste in their mouth.”
How Bad Does it Need to Be to Intervene?
After completing their study, one of Smith and Kosovski’s biggest concerns was that people with mild or moderate substance use disorders might not relate to the severe cases on TV.
“Viewers in need of help could approach the narrative and say ‘I’m not that bad’ and not seek treatment,” Kosovski said.
Not feeling a need for treatment and feeling like they can handle the problem without help are common reasons for avoiding treatment, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Smith said it’s a common problem in 12-step programs and treatment centers. “It is among the most common reasons why only 10 percent of people with diagnosed substance use problems go to a specialized treatment center,” he said.
“When emotions are involved, using an interventionist that is skilled and knowledgeable is so beneficial.”
Karen Rainer, a South Florida interventionist with more than a decade of experience, says families don’t have to wait until a loved one reaches rock bottom to seek help.
“It’s pretty clear when someone’s life becomes unmanageable or when there are consequences that are occurring from use,” Rainer told DrugRehab.com. She advises families to “go ahead and call an interventionist” if they can’t convince them after a few conversations.
“When parents reach out to an interventionist, it’s usually because they’ve tried to do something themselves and have not been successful,” Rainer said. “When emotions are involved, using an interventionist that is skilled and knowledgeable is so beneficial.”
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The Intervention Industry Today
Stephen Wilkins has been doing this for a long time.
He’s seen the topic of addiction change from being an inconvenient family secret to a national health epidemic. Since he became an interventionist 13 years ago, he’s asked every family he’s helped whether they consider addiction to be a disease or willful misconduct.
“By and large, the response has become ‘it’s a disease,’” Wilkins said. “Thirteen years ago, 30 to 40 percent of clients would say it’s selfish or destructive behavior.”
The Coloradan has been in recovery from alcoholism for more than 20 years. He became an interventionist when the Catholic Church in Colorado sought a better way to respond to practitioners who were affected by addiction.
Wilkins went through a training process and “one thing led to another, and now I facilitate interventions full time,” said the board certified addiction counselor.
But Wilkins worries that most families don’t realize that you don’t need a certification or professional training in order to market yourself as an interventionist.
“A lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing are out there doing it badly,” Wilkins said.
Rainer likes to think everyone has the best intentions, but she said, “There are many people that enter this industry that are more business oriented and less healing oriented.”
“A lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing are out there doing it badly.”
“It’s buyer beware,” Rainer emphasized. “There are some great marketing people, commercials, books and gimmicks. You really need to research carefully the health care facility that your loved one is going to be entering into.”
Others are in it for the right reasons but fall victim to training programs that aren’t evidence-based.
“There are people who are training, perhaps with the best intentions, with non-recognizable certifications,” Rainer said. “I always tell [prospective interventionists] they need to be very careful about who they are going to train under.”
The two recognized groups of interventionists in the United States are the Network of Independent Interventionists and the Association of Intervention Specialists.
The Network of Independent Interventionists and the Association of Intervention Specialists are recognized interventionist groups.
The Pennsylvania Certification Board is the only major certifying body recognized by all of the large behavioral health care organizations. Professionals must pass stringent qualifications and career markers to obtain a board certification, Rainer said.
The consequences of choosing an unqualified interventionist include a high risk of tension and hostility during the intervention, failing to convince a loved one to seek substance abuse treatment and high dropout rates after agreeing to treatment.
When that happens, certified interventionists often have to clean up the mess.
Some interventionists work directly for a treatment center, and their job is to get a person into a treatment program, regardless of whether the program is appropriate for them.
Other interventionists have insufficient training or have certifications from unrecognized programs. Rainer compared them to a nurse who wants to perform surgery.
“They have some skill, but they don’t have the advanced-level skill to make it successful,” she said.
In either situation, the person seeking treatment rarely gets referred to the best treatment center for them.
“I get a lot of desperate calls from people saying they paid for two interventions and this is what happened,” Rainer said. “I realize they’ve been taken advantage of by somebody who thought they could help but has no right, yet, being completely on their own doing that kind of work.”
In those situations, Rainer gathers some details and refers them to a certified treatment center that can help them.
“I realize they’ve been taken advantage of by somebody who thought they could help but has no right, yet, being completely on their own doing that kind of work.”
“I call those cleanups because they already know what to expect,” Rainer said. “Most of the time I don’t have to meet with them. We do it all over the phone. Let’s get on the phone, let’s text, let’s find a couple of places. It doesn’t make sense to go through the process from square one.”
What to Look for in an Interventionist
Interventionists come from different paths and different backgrounds. Most are in recovery themselves, so they know firsthand why people become addicted to drugs. They know the toll addiction takes on the entire family.
Keith Bradley was running a successful business when he achieved sobriety in 2005. He was able to step away from work, volunteer at a detox center for the indigent and help connect homeless individuals with their families. It gave him purpose.
“Something happened, and I suddenly, very early on in sobriety, found some self-worth,” Bradley said. “I got fascinated with doing that. From there, I went to the seminars and the workshops and all of the stuff, and completely walked away from the business that I had been in for more than 30 years.”
Jake Jansen found a passion for helping people recover while he was incarcerated. Jack Bloomfield and Karen Rainer left positions at rehab centers to help families and individuals more directly. Stephen Wilkins started going to workshops to help people part-time and ended up making it his full time job.
Each of them possesses a common quality: a passion for what they do. A passion and a knack for being very good at what they do.
When asked if professional, certified interventionists increase the chances of long-term recovery, Rainer said “From my own experience, the answer would have to be yes. Largely because of that front-end work that an interventionist does to make sure the symptomology and the needs of the client can be met at the centers that they’re suggesting.”
“When completed by a certified, experienced interventionist, more than 90 percent of people agree to seek treatment.”
Most of them work through word of mouth. They don’t spend a lot of money on advertising or marketing. Referrals and recommendations are more reliable than ads on TV.
Wilkins recommends calling a reputable treatment agency and asking for a referral for an independent interventionist. But he cautions that the interventionist should not be employed by the treatment facility because he or she should be unbiased when recommending the most appropriate facility.
Before agreeing to an intervention, Wilkins recommends asking several questions:
- Do they have clinical experience or training?
- Do they have a certification as an addiction counselor?
- Do they have liability insurance?
- Will they meet with you to learn more before asking for a financial commitment?
He said to make sure they’re certified by a legitimate organization and to “make sure they’re a good fit for your family and a good fit for your loved one.”
Unlike the TV shows, which show you the entire intervention process in one hour and give brief updates, recovery isn’t a quick process.
“You can’t go to treatment for 30, 60, 90 days and expect everything to be fine,” Rainer said. “I think a lot of times that’s what family members believe. They don’t recognize that it takes a year, maybe two years maybe longer, for someone to pass by all of their anniversaries, holidays, family gatherings — all of the stressful things that happen in life.”
“Most often, somebody suffering from addiction already wants help.”
It takes hard work. It takes time. It takes effort. No one wants to be addicted to alcohol or other drugs.
“Most often, somebody suffering from addiction already wants help,” Wilkins said. “They already want to go to treatment, but they’re conflicted. There is a small voice that says ‘I really need help,’ but then there’s the loud voice of addiction that says ‘keep doing what you’re doing.’”
The purpose of the intervention is to provide a safe, loving environment to support a person’s internal motivation for seeking help. It’s to get them to believe in themselves when they start treatment. It’s to set them up for success after the intervention.
With the proper tools, training and experience, interventionists provide hope when families have no other hope.
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