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Exploring the Johnson and Family Intervention Models—Plus What You Can Do

Previously on this page we’ve discussed what you should know if you decide to hire an interventionist. It’s not as easy as it looks when you watch Dr. Phil do it! Here you can learn about two common types of intervention therapies practiced by professional interventionists, and there is also some advice for moving forward on your own. 

The Johnson Model

Way back in the Sixties, an Episcopal priest named Vernon Johnson recognized the need to put together an intervention strategy that utilized encouragement from the addict’s family members rather than accusing him of and blaming him for his negative behaviors. In this way, Johnson believed that the addict would be encouraged to accept the need for drug or alcohol treatment not only for his own good but also for that of the family.

He recognized that a surprise intervention would quickly result in the addict’s refusal to hear anything said by his family members. He felt that the best way to reach through the addict’s barrier of denial would be through heartfelt letters written by family members. The stages of a Johnson intervention therefore include:

  • A person who organizes everybody who will be participating in the intervention, including family members, coworkers, friends—anyone who cares enough about the addict to participate.
  • The organizer instructs all persons to write their letters, reviews the letters with them, and sets a time and place for the intervention.
  • The entire intervention must only address the care that the addict needs without blaming him for his actions.
  • The intervention can address only the positive choice of moving forward, without rehashing old hurts or incidents from the past.
  • The letters should address evidence of addiction by describing events with attention to detail. Although the person is not recriminated for his behaviors, an ultimatum will be given.
  • After all the letters are read, the addict is urged to seek treatment, not as a punitive measure but as a way to preserve his health or his job or otherwise improve his life. 
  • Three treatment options that the team members have discussed ahead of time should be presented to the addict. The family members will stick to their ultimatum if the addict refuses.

The Family Systemic Model

Over time, treatment professionals modified Johnson’s model in order to ameliorate the devastating effects of the addict’s behavior on his family. Professionals realized that the addict’s behavior generated depression, suicidal thoughts, impulsivity, manic behavior, and physical ailments not only in himself but also in his family members. This revised intervention model specifies:

  • Whereas the initial meeting of the organizer or interventionist with the family members is kept secret from the addict, the addict is included in the plans for a meeting. There is no secret meeting.
  • The family members tell the addict how his behavior has impacted them, and the addict can respond. The organizer—a certified treatment professional—moderates this conversation.
  • Rather than one intervention meeting, there can be several meetings set out over weeks or months.
  • The addict ultimately agrees to therapy and the family enters into separate family counseling. Eventually the addict will be integrated into the family counseling sessions.

Can You Do This Yourself?

Do you really need an interventionist? The cost can be staggering, and you have to be careful about choosing one. If you educate yourself about the substance your family member is using and if you are aware of any mental health issues he’s experiencing, you can confront him on your own. You also need to be aware that you have probably been enabling his substance abuse to some extent, and so you will want to draw boundaries and hold your loved one accountable for his behavior. Be certain to contact a drug or alcohol treatment center ahead of time to learn about treatment options for your loved one so that you can move forward from a sound base of knowledge. 

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