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Hone your skills in intervention

May 1, 2010
by Jane Eigner Mintz
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Professionals can succeed in helping the most clinically complex individuals

A new year is always a time of re-evaluation and planning. It offers an opportunity to address what works and what doesn't in our lives, and inspires us to chart improved courses for the coming year. In the spirit of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, “Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions,” I offer a call to arms for all those in the intervention, addiction and behavioral health professions to embrace the new year by making a commitment to advance ourselves personally and professionally by investing in continuing education. One way to begin is to learn about the power of intervention.

It's no surprise that at this time in history, addiction and related behavioral health issues have rocketed to epidemic proportions worldwide. Those of us in the healing arts will inevitably come across individuals and families derailed by the disease of addiction. The pervasive nature of this illness will undoubtedly challenge professionals in every related and adjunct field.

Identification, opinion on states of readiness and the willingness to interrupt the progression of the disease are complicated by misunderstandings about the pervasive nature of addiction and are further compounded by uneducated perspectives of the general population, professionals and paraprofessionals alike. Myths are disguised as facts and insidious co-dependence on both personal and professional levels often prevent the sick and suffering from getting the help they need. The truth is that as well-intentioned as we might be, many of us are hobbled in our efforts to help the addicted if we have non-current skill sets. In fact, many practitioners may unintentionally cause even greater harm by relying on medical and therapeutic ideologies that are out of alignment with current treatment strategies.

Medical, legal, therapeutic and spiritual professionals come into daily contact with individuals and family members afflicted by this disease. Yet, the untreated addict runs roughshod over the people, places and things in his/her life. With this in mind, a fundamental problem in professional awareness exists in that addiction education and more specifically intervention strategies are not currently taught in mainstream medical, counseling and higher educational curricula.

Millions of people suffer from addictive issues and walk among us every day. Some are obviously afflicted while others are harder to detect. But the truth is that an individual who suffers from addiction rarely goes unnoticed.

Employing any intervention strategies at earlier stages of the addiction continuum would change inevitably dark outcomes for many. Anyone, be it a layperson or a professional, with even cursory knowledge of intervention can make a significant difference. Few will become interventionists but many can become part of a large pool of people armed with new knowledge and resources. Collectively, the most powerful tool we can have is knowledge executed in skilled and ethical practice. No longer can we afford to ignore these problems because they are not our direct responsibility. A higher human ethic that is involved here must be addressed.

Elements of intervention

With this in mind let's consider the hallmark features of the acute and complex intervention client. Intervention clients, by the very nature of the fact that they are typically at imminent risk of hurting themselves or others, are earmarked as clinically complex. Simply put, they would not be intervention clients if they were at any earlier stage of their illness. They have slipped through many cracks and have artfully evaded all outreach efforts from the people who care about them. Without a well-orchestrated professional rescue plan their outcomes are often grim and the people who are in their sphere of influence remain at risk.

Untreated, these individuals, many of whom come from families with addiction histories, cannot help but influence the next generation (their children) by grooming them to become the next wave of addicts or adult children of addicts. Each such designation carries with it medical, psychological, behavioral and spiritual burdens. Furthermore, the entire family system becomes toxic, and without treatment or good counsel they cannot help passing along to the next generation the collateral damage of untreated co-dependence, enmeshment, poor boundaries and unhealthy communication practices.

A great majority of intervention clients are dually diagnosed. They have addiction issues compounded by features of or actual diagnosed mental illness. Their early developmental histories often include elements of neglect, trauma, grief and loss. The scope of their derailment can be evidenced by significant drama in nearly every area of their lives. Most untreated addicts come with legal complications, damaged interpersonal relationships, financial wreckage, employment trouble, and family unhappiness and chaos. In spite of the real, indisputable evidence before them they will vehemently and self-righteously defend their disease and deny its power over them. They often cannot empathetically connect to the ripple effect their behavior has on their families, friends and society. Even the threat of irreversible medical problems, incarceration, divorce, death and banishment from work and family might not be enough to engage an addict in a solution-oriented recovery plan.