Brief Intervention


Make a Difference in Minutes

Sometimes a brief intervention—5 to 15 minutes—can persuade someone to change a dangerous habit before it escalates. Find out what you can do to help a friend or family member before treatment becomes necessary.



by Jenny Wagstaff, MS, LPC, Campus Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center, Virginia Tech

Did you ever hear a co-worker talk about “blacking out” from alcohol? Or maybe a close friend complaining of a hangover?  It’s easy to ignore these comments, but the truth is that a brief alcohol intervention has the potential to make a difference with someone engaging in high-risk drinking.

A brief intervention is nothing more than a short, one-on-one conversation. It can be delivered in a matter of minutes, in a non-judgmental, non-threatening style. Using a technique that clinicians call “motivational interviewing,” you can not only address problems associated with alcohol use and abuse, but create a plan toward change.

The first step is assessing the problem, and there are simple tools that will help your friend or family member see for themselves how their drinking compares to the norm. First, point out the numbers. Excessive drinking is defined as follows:

Men: More than 14 drinks per week/more than 4 per occasion

Women: More than 7 drinks per week/more than 3 per occasion

Another indicator of alcohol abuse is a score of 1 or higher on something called the CAGE test, which is just an acronym to help you remember five key questions to ask:

  • Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?
  • Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  • Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?
  • Have you ever had an “Eye-opener,” i.e., a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?

If these litmus tests suggest a problem, you can engage in a brief intervention based on a model by Hester and Miller (1995). It’s commonly called “FRAMES”—another acronym to remind you of the right steps to take:

Give feedback regarding the risks and negative consequences of substance use. Try comments like “I’m concerned about the amount of alcohol you drink and how it affects you” or “You mentioned that a hangover affected your work recently.”

Acknowledge that it’s the responsibility of every individual to make choices about personal alcohol use.

Give specific advice on modifying alcohol use. Recommend a two-week, daily log of alcohol consumption; suggest the possible need to cut back.

Menu of Options
Provide a menu of alternative change strategies. Talk about the benefits/concerns related to staying the same, versus making a change.

Be empathic, respectful, and non-judgmental.

Self-efficacy is one’s ability to produce a desired result. Express optimism that your friend or family member can make a positive change.

Brief interventions really do matter, and they don’t have to be contentious or confrontational. Just remember, your willingness to say something in the moment could prevent the need for treatment in the future. That’s definitely worth the effort. [For more information, visit http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/]

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