Most people recovering from a substance use disorder will require ongoing care to ensure they live in sobriety full time. Outpatient treatment is one form of addiction treatment that helps them achieve this goal. This level of addiction care offers therapies and services for recovery on a more flexible schedule for people who cannot commit to receiving treatment in an inpatient or residential facility for an extended period, usually anywhere from 28 days or more.

Outpatient programs allow clients to live at home or in transitional housing so that they can continue to take care of obligations related to school, work, or home. It is also an ideal treatment program for people who need affordable treatment services that offer the same level of care as programs that require an on-site stay at a facility that offers full-time supervision and medical care. 

Because outpatient treatment is an affordable option, some insurance companies view it favorably and are more willing to cover it.

Who Outpatient Treatment Can Help

Outpatient treatment programs are ideal for people who:

  • Are working through mild substance use disorders
  • Do not need to complete a medical detox for substance use
  • Need a transitional setting after they exit residential treatment
  • Want to follow a structured program with the help of family and friends
  • Feel like they need more support to avoid having a relapse

This kind of program is also most beneficial to people who have a stable living environment and reliable transportation so that they can get to their sessions, and also supportive people around them.

How Outpatient Programs Work

Outpatient programs are low-to-moderate in intensity and offered for nine or fewer hours a week. Programs can run in the daytime or evening, and it is up to clients to find a schedule that works for them. Outpatient programs offer various settings that promote recovery. Clients can receive their treatment at a hospital, area clinic, or rehab facility that treats substance use disorders. 

As with other recovery programs, outpatient treatment focuses on the specific needs of the person receiving it. During these hours, clients will follow an individualized program that gives them the specific tools, strategies, counseling, and resources they need to work through their substance use disorder and any accompanying issues. All therapies and services offered will depend on where a person is in their recovery process.

Outpatient programs can offer any the following:

  • Educational classes about substance use
  • Relapse prevention
  • Cravings and triggers management
  • Mental health treatment
  • Individual therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • 12-step programs
  • Life skills
  • Anger management
  • Random drug testing

This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives an idea of what you can expect from an outpatient treatment program.

What to Consider When Selecting an Outpatient Program

Before you choose an outpatient program, you might want to evaluate where you are in your recovery journey right now. There is much to consider, including:

  • Substances you might be using now
  • Substance use history; family substance use history
  • Medical history
  • Pre-existing mental health disorders (dual diagnosis)
  • Earlier attempt to stop using addictive substances
  • Relapse history

Take an honest assessment of your physical, emotional, and mental needs right now to see if an outpatient program is the best fit or if you need another kind of treatment program and facility. You also may want to compare outpatient programs at different facilities to see if they could work with your schedule and personal preferences for treatment. 

Why Outpatient Treatment Might Not Be for Everyone

On the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s continuum of care, outpatient treatment is at Level 1, which means it is among the least intensive settings for recovery from substance use disorders. A less-intensive setting means people who want to participate in an outpatient program will have to take some time to think about if this kind of treatment program is appropriate for where they are in their recovery journey right now.

Before a person enrolls in an outpatient program, there are some questions to consider. Among them are:

  • Can I commit to attending my therapy sessions for up to nine hours a week?
  • Will I be able to manage my obligations and attend my sessions as scheduled? Will I be able to maintain my independence between sessions?
  • Do I live in an environment that can keep me accountable to my sobriety goals when I am not receiving therapy?
  • Will I be able to manage outside distractions, including people who might not be supportive of my recovery journey?
  • Will I be tempted to use substances if I am not in a setting that promotes full-time sobriety?
  • Am I motivated to stick with my recovery program? Am I ready to change?

Residential treatment, which takes place in a structured environment, allows people to check off all the questions above with a “yes” answer. Residential care is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and clients follow a daily schedule with few distractions to give their full attention to working through their substance use disorder and other disorders they may have. 

Outpatient treatment does not offer any of these benefits, so people who participate in an outpatient program must be realistic about what they can and cannot handle as they manage their recovery. Outpatient clients must manage their own lives, taking responsibility for everything, including taking prescription medications as directed, paying their own bills, and assessing their risk for relapse.

This means outpatient clients must:

  • Set their schedules for meeting their treatment hours (nine or fewer hours a week)
  • Balance treatment with their responsibilities
  • Keep their space clear of addictive substances and harmful influences
  • Avoid distractions that could derail their recovery, including unsupportive people
  • Remain alert to address any temptations and triggers that can lead to relapse

If you need more hours in a program but still cannot afford full-time treatment, you might find that an intensive outpatient program could work for you. 

Outpatient Therapy Vs. Intensive Outpatient Therapy

The key difference between an outpatient therapy program (OP) and an intensive outpatient therapy program (IOP) is the number of hours a person must complete. An IOP requires nine or more hours a week, and the therapy is more rigorous than it is in an outpatient program.

An IOP can be the next level of care a person enters once they have finished their time in residential treatment. It offers more hands-on support for people who are new to recovery or need more time to transition from a more structured program.

Individuals in an IOP can attend a program a set number of hours a day, five days a week. These programs can last for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the person’s needs. IOPs also offer therapies and counseling, as other treatment settings do. They also might cost more than standard outpatient programs, so if cost is a concern, make sure to review this option carefully.

Find Treatment That Meets You Where You Are

No matter where a person is on the continuum of care, all people in recovery owe it to themselves to get the most out of their recovery. Starting over after battling addiction is tough, so if you or a loved one decides that you need more time in a structured environment before starting an outpatient program, then know that there are treatment options that can meet your needs.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse advises a person to remain in treatment for as long as needed to be effective. Research shows that 90 days is ideal, but as noted earlier, outpatient treatment can be ongoing for as long as it is needed.

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