Could an ‘Intervention’ Have Helped Michael Jackson?

michael jackson's overdose - what would an intervention look likeWithin hours of Michael Jackson’s overdose, many asked, could an “intervention” have saved him, by persuading him to seek alcohol and drug rehab? Because it came out in the press that Jackson had actually experienced two interventions, the immediate answer to this question would appear to be that intervention was not helpful, at least to Jackson. But let us imagine what might have happened at these interventions, to understand more about intervention itself.

What is an Addiction Intervention?

The ‘Johnson Intervention’ is an organized confrontation in which the person with an addiction is misled into showing up somewhere (often by being told a lie), and then “ambushed” by as many significant others as can be recruited. Each person recites a prepared and rehearsed list of concerns and resentments. Individuals who support doing interventions state that “denial is at the core of addiction, and breaking through denial can require extreme measures.”  As part of the extreme measures, the victim of an intervention is given an ultimatum, which typically is that the friends and family will end or dramatically modify their relationship with the “alcoholic or addict” unless he or she immediately enters the treatment facility that has been picked out.
There are other methods of intervention, and the Johnson variety may be the most extreme. The procedure was developed by a clergy person, the Rev. Vernon E. Johnson, and was promoted by his Johnson Institute from 1966 until 2009 when the Johnson Institute transferred key programs and products to the Hazelden Foundation Center for Public Advocacy.  Both Johnson and Hazelden are 12-step oriented, so referral to Hazelden’s 12-step based treatment programs, or similar programs, can be assumed to be the standard goal of Johnson style interventions.

Addiction and Celebrities

We don’t know which type of intervention Jackson experienced. In his case, however, the ultimatum might not have meant much. Because he was the source of money and employment for many of those around him, how seriously did his significant others mean it when they gave him ultimatums? How willing were they to cut themselves off from financial involvement with Jackson? The consequences of celebrities (or the wealthy) face for their addictive behavior may be dramatically smaller (until they die) than the consequences faced by ordinary individuals.
The evidence from research indicates that confrontation (such as in an intervention, but also any aspect of addiction treatment or recovery) is ineffective. Confrontation leads to increased emotional disturbance, including depression and anxiety. For the victim of an intervention, increased substance use might be expected, in that substance use is the preferred way to cope with emotional upsets. After a ‘hard-core’ intervention, which might result in the desertion of friends and family, emotional despair and even suicide become imaginable.

Addiction Recovery in Small Steps

What might have happened in the intervention that could have prevented Michael Jackson’s overdose?  First, Jackson, if he already did not realize it, would likely have seen how much his significant others depended on him and his money. Unfortunately, this realization may have reinforced the false idea that he could do anything he wanted in life with little fear of consequences. Second, Jackson was likely given an extreme choice: go to [this treatment center] or else. Even though the “or else” probably proved to be weak, perhaps the saddest part of these interventions would have been that no one sat down with Jackson and objectively discussed his options. What might have happened for Jackson if instead of being ordered to do something he must not have wanted to do, he could have been informed about and helped to move forward on some small changes in his life? Ironically, despite the drama of the intervention procedure, most life changes, even in addiction recovery, happen in small steps, not large ones. Unfortunately, Jackson may never have been helped to make the small steps which over time could have added up to large ones.