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5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of an Intensive Outpatient Program

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Research shows that intensive outpatient programs may be even more successful than other outpatient programs. Considering an IOP? Here’s how to set yourself up for the best outcomes.

Clinically Reviewed By:
Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

Mental healthcare is a dynamic process that depends on access, safety, trust, and openness—as well as clinicians and clients who are ready and able to take on the work. In this way (much like school, jobs, or even relationships) mental healthcare is often as impactful as you’re able to let it be.

For young people with more severe mental health challenges that make daily life difficult to manage, there’s a structured treatment option for mental healthcare that’s more intensive than weekly therapy but far more flexible than a partial hospitalization program: the intensive outpatient program (IOP).

As experts in IOPs and fierce advocates for the teen and young adult program, the team at Charlie Health believes that anyone considering an IOP program deserves tips and recommendations to help them make the most of the program. Keep reading for our perspective on setting yourself up for the most effective IOP experience possible.

What is an intensive outpatient program (IOP)?

An intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides a higher level of care than individual therapy but, unlike inpatient treatment, clients can remain in their own homes and maintain their daily schedules. This means that clients can also explore the skills they’re building in the real world as they move through the program. Research shows that IOPs can even be more successful than other approaches to the nonresidential treatment program.

Because IOPs provide more intensive care than other forms of outpatient therapy, they can be especially helpful for people whose mental health challenges are more severe and disruptive—but may not, in some cases, meet the criteria for inpatient care or partial hospitalization programs. These challenges include:

The goals of an intensive outpatient program are to provide structured, high-quality mental healthcare outside of inpatient treatment, avoid interference with daily life, and create a supportive and sustainable path to healing and recovery.

A teen with red hair attends a virtual IOP therapy session

How can you get the most out of an IOP?

Similarly to any form of mental healthcare, IOPs require a certain level of personal commitment in order to get the most out of the experience. Below are a few things to consider and prioritize while moving through an IOP as a teen or young adult.

Know what to expect

Knowing what you can expect from a program you might not be familiar with helps you mentally and emotionally prepare for the process. It’s essential to know a program’s different components, potential benefits, and any challenging aspects you might come across.

A standard IOP may include individual psychotherapy sessions using the best therapeutic modality or modalities for an individual’s care, group therapy sessions with peers with similar experiences and challenges, and family therapy programming that brings family members with whom the client feels safest into treatment.

Here’s what else you can expect if you or your teen begins an IOP:

  • Structured treatment options: IOPs provide clients with a healthy balance of structure and flexibility. While the care plan itself will have structure—including scheduled sessions, separate therapeutic modalities, and expectations for both the clients and the clinicians—there’s tremendous flexibility. Because IOPs are outpatient, they can be pursued without taking time off from school, work, or social activities. The intensive nature of the program combined with the ability to continue daily life as usual create a unique and supportive environment to heal.
  • Individualized care: Mental healthcare is never one-size-fits-all and neither are IOPs. Each individual’s path to healing will involve a different combination of therapeutic modalities and additional support to meet their unique needs and preferences.
  • A supportive environment: IOPs offer compassionate support from clinicians, social support from peers with similar challenges, and ongoing involvement of family members to create a supportive environment that’s conducive for sustainable healing. Virtual IOPs may be especially helpful for clients who feel that their home is the safest and most supportive environment to address significant mental health challenges.

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Keep showing up and be present

Whether a program is in-person or virtual (like IOP at Charlie Health), showing up is the most important first step to getting the most out of an IOP. You can’t begin the process of healing without being present in your care plan. 

Since IOPs are typically individualized for each person and incorporate several different therapeutic modalities and approaches to care, every appointment or session really matters. It’s like a therapeutic puzzle—each component comes together to support you thoughtfully and holistically.

Additionally, any approach to therapy relies on building a therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the client. Showing up gives you more opportunities to build that trusting and compassionate relationship and experience its benefits in action.

Give recommendations a try

Some therapeutic modalities that can be part of an IOP, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), may involve activities between sessions. These activities, sometimes called homework, are created to deepen understanding of the skills and concepts that are covered in sessions and put them into practice. 

Like any new skill, new coping strategies take practice. Doing homework as part of a mental healthcare plan can even help improve therapy outcomes for young people.

Know that healing is rarely a straight line

All forms of healing take time—and they very rarely follow any sort of linear timeline or process, especially in terms of mental healthcare. Know that you’ll have ups, downs, twists, and turns along the way to feeling better. This is normal and expected. Be patient with yourself, show yourself compassion, and trust in the process. 

Open yourself up to connection

When managing mental health challenges, social support is a significant part of healing and recovery. IOP’s outpatient structure allows for access to intensive, high-quality mental healthcare in a supportive ecosystem of like minded peers and family involvement. 

Group therapy, which is a common component of IOPs, provides a structured environment for healthy connections to develop with other people who are dealing with similar issues. 

Leaning on your peers and supportive family members, both inside and outside of care, can also help you lovingly be held accountable and stay the course through all the ups and downs.

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How does the process work at Charlie Health?

Charlie Health’s Intensive Outpatient Program for young people ages 12-28 is completely virtual and typically lasts 9-12 weeks.

Each individual in our care receives a personalized IOP for their needs and preferences. However, on average, our Program includes: 

  • 3 hours of supported group sessions, 3 days per week
  • 1 hour of individual therapy 
  • 1-2 hours of family therapy

Here’s what else you can expect from our virtual IOP:

  • A clinical assessment from our team of expert mental health clinicians to evaluate whether or not our Program is the right treatment program for you versus weekly therapy, residential treatment, or, in some cases, intensive outpatient rehab.
  • If our IOP is a good fit for your mental healthcare plan, you will receive an overview of our Program, including the schedule of individual therapy, supported groups, and family therapy sessions. Therapy sessions are offered in the evenings and on weekends so care doesn’t have to interfere with school, work, and other important activities.
  • To ensure you’re in the best supported group for your needs and preferences, we’ll match you to your peers through a data-driven process that takes age, mental health history, and therapeutic goals into account. 
  • Outside of session times, you will also be able to access support from the Charlie Health clinical team as challenges arise.
  • Your primary therapist will stick with you throughout the process to ensure you’re feeling supported and continue receiving the right level of care.
  • Aftercare with Charlie Health, alumni programming keeps the learning, growing, and healing going for as long as you need it.

Getting started with Charlie Health’s IOP

Virtual IOP at Charlie Health is proven to provide industry-leading clinical outcomes for teens and young adults in our care. 

Our team of expert clinicians and mental health professionals are trained in a range of evidence-based therapeutic modalities for children and adolescents, including CBT, dialectal behavioral therapy (DBT) skills, art and music therapy, dance or movement therapy, and attachment-based family therapy. You can learn more about the other types of therapy we specialize in on our treatment modalities page

If you or your teen is interested in learning more about Charlie Health’s virtual IOP, get in touch today. We’re here 24/7 to help you or the young person in your life get the care you or they need.

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