Young female in a group therapy session at an inpatient program. She is being comforted by a male therapist.

Intensive Outpatient Programs vs. Inpatient Treatment: What’s the Best Option for Your Teen?

7 min.

It's important to consult with mental health professionals and consider your teen’s required level of mental health support before deciding if an intensive outpatient program or inpatient treatment is right for them.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Updated: July 31, 2023

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Teenagers and young adults are facing increasingly severe mental health challenges, and many need more support than traditional outpatient therapy. Fortunately, there are multiple mental health treatment options that are more intensive than once-weekly therapy, including inpatient treatment and intensive outpatient treatment options. However, figuring out the best behavioral health program for your teen can be challenging. You may be wondering: what is an intensive outpatient program (IOP)? Or what are the reasons why outpatient treatment might be preferred to inpatient treatment programs? Keep reading to learn about the key differences between outpatient and inpatient programs and how to determine which is the best choice for your child. 

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The key differences between outpatient and inpatient programs

The key differences between outpatient care and inpatient programs are related to the level of care, the intensity of the treatment program, the setting, and the nature of patient involvement in each form of treatment.

Level of care

  • Outpatient Program: Patients attend scheduled appointments and therapy sessions but return home afterward. Outpatient programs provide a lower level of care than inpatient programs and are best for people who need more support than once-weekly therapy but do not need constant medical supervision. 
  • Inpatient Program: Patients stay in a hospital or residential facility throughout treatment. Inpatient programs offer a higher level of care than outpatient programs and are designed for people who require 24-hour medical supervision and support. 

Intensity of treatment

  • Outpatient Program: While more structured than once-weekly therapy, outpatient treatment is less intensive than inpatient care. Patients typically attend therapy sessions—possibly including a combination of group, individual, and family therapy—on a scheduled basis, such as several times a week or monthly, depending on their treatment plan.
  • Inpatient Program: Treatment in an inpatient care setting is highly intensive and structured. Patients receive round-the-clock medical and therapeutic support, allowing for continuous monitoring and immediate intervention if needed.

Duration of treatment

  • Outpatient Program: Outpatient treatment durations vary widely, and the length of the program can be more flexible depending on the individual’s needs and progress.
  • Inpatient Program: Inpatient treatment programs often have a fixed duration, which could range from a few days to several weeks, depending on the severity of the condition and the treatment plan.

Setting

  • Outpatient Program: In traditional outpatient programs, patients receive treatment at clinics, counseling centers, or medical facilities and return home after each session. Charlie Health’s virtual IOP allows people to receive the same level of care but from home (more on this below).
  • Inpatient Program: Patients receive treatment in a hospital or residential facility, where they stay for the entire duration of the program.

Patient autonomy

  • Outpatient Program: Outpatient programs allow patients to maintain more independence and continue with their daily routines, but it also requires a higher level of personal responsibility in adhering to the treatment plan.
  • Inpatient Program: Patients in an inpatient program have limited freedom and will be subject to more rigid schedules and rules as they reside within a controlled environment.

Ultimately, the choice between outpatient and inpatient programs depends on the individual’s specific needs, the severity of their condition, and the recommendations of healthcare professionals involved in their care. In some cases, a combination of both types of programs might be utilized for comprehensive treatment.

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Types of outpatient and inpatient mental health programs 

In the landscape of behavioral healthcare options, outpatient programs and inpatient programs are umbrella terms encompassing a range of mental healthcare services. As discussed, these terms refer to different levels of care and treatment settings. Here’s an overview of some different types of outpatient and inpatient mental health programs, though this list is not exhaustive.

Types of outpatient treatment options 

  • Once-weekly therapy: Meeting with a licensed therapist for one-on-one sessions (or group or family sessions) to address specific mental health issues, explore emotions, and develop coping strategies. Sessions are typically once a week or less. 
  • Medication management: Regular visits to a healthcare provider, such as a psychiatrist or primary care physician, to monitor medication usage and make necessary adjustments to the treatment plan.
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP): As discussed, IOP is more structured and comprehensive than once-weekly outpatient therapy. IOP involves group, individual, and family sessions multiple times per week.
  • Partial hospitalization programs (PHP): PHPs are the most intensive outpatient care option. Patients attend a structured program during the day and return home in the evenings.

Types of inpatient treatment options

  • General inpatient psychiatric units: These units are located within general hospitals and provide short-term care for individuals experiencing severe mental health crises, such as suicidal ideation, severe depression, psychosis, or mania.
  • Psychiatric hospitals: Stand-alone psychiatric hospitals specialize in the treatment of mental health disorders and offer a comprehensive range of psychiatric services. They often have multiple units for different age groups or specific conditions. These hospitals can be divided into units based on age—like geriatric and child and adolescent units—and diagnosis—like mood disorder units, personality disorder units, and eating disorder units. 
  • Substance abuse and addiction treatment units: These inpatient programs address the mental health needs of individuals with substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. These units specifically serve people seeking addiction treatment for those with substance use disorders.

How does IOP treatment work?

Teens or young adults who need more support than once-weekly therapy but less support than an inpatient program may want to consider IOP. This kind of treatment program combines individual, family, and group sessions, usually multiple times per week. However, since it doesn’t require living in a residential facility, people can still go to school or work outside of therapy.

How does virtual IOP treatment work?

Virtual IOP, like the kind offered by Charlie Health, offers an even more convenient, intensive option, which might particularly appeal to young people. With virtual IOP, teenagers don’t have to put their daily lives on hold to start the healing process. Instead of living in a treatment center or driving to one multiple times per week, teenagers can attend appointments virtually—learning coping skills and getting mental health support from the comfort of home. 

At Charlie Health, our virtual IOP combines individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and medication management (if needed) to create a comprehensive treatment plan based on your teen’s mental health needs. After your clinical assessment, we’ll connect your teen to a primary therapist specializing in their needs. We’ll also match your teen into curated therapy groups with peers navigating similar mental health issues so they can work toward holistic healing.

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How do inpatient programs work?

Inpatient treatment provides around-the-clock support and monitoring, making it the best choice for teenagers who need 24-hour medical supervision and support. If your teenager is actively suicidal, displays violence or aggression, or engages in dangerous behavior, an inpatient program can provide a supportive environment with care from licensed clinicians. 

If your doctor recommends an inpatient treatment program, it typically means that:

  • Your teen has received a mental health condition or substance use disorder diagnosis
  • Their symptoms and behaviors are extremely uncomfortable and disruptive
  • Their symptoms and behaviors prevent them from participating in daily life
  • They will leave their daily life to develop coping skills to manage symptoms and start healing

When your teen is safe and stable, your treatment team may recommend a step down in care, including outpatient programs like IOP or PHP. 

IOP vs. inpatient treatment: How can you make the right choice for your teen?

Choosing between IOP and an inpatient treatment program for your teen involves carefully evaluating their specific needs and circumstances. Begin by consulting with mental health professionals who can assess your teen’s mental health and their required support level. Consider how well your teen is functioning in their daily life and if their mental health challenges significantly impact their ability to handle school and social activities. Evaluate the flexibility and scheduling options of both programs. Additionally, consider the support system available at home and the extent of supervision needed. Ultimately, the best choice will depend on professional recommendations, your teen’s preferences, and your family’s unique circumstances to ensure they receive the appropriate level of care and support for their mental health journey.

IOP at Charlie Health

If IOP is right for your teen, Charlie Health can help. Our personalized virtual IOP offers more than once-weekly support—including groups and individual and family therapy—for teens and young adults from the comfort of home. We offer evening and weekend sessions so school and extracurriculars don’t interfere with your teen’s healing journey. We’re dedicated to meeting clients where they are and will work with you to ensure treatment is accessible and convenient.

Charlie Health’s clinicians can address various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and more. Our treatment team specializes in multiple therapeutic interventions, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and can create a personalized treatment plan for your teen. 

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