Read Our 2023 Annual Outcomes Report

A young woman struggling with mental health issues stands at home looking out of a window

What Does High Acuity Mental Health Mean?

5 min.

Mental health symptoms and conditions vary greatly. High acuity mental health patients require more intensive and immediate treatment.

By: Ashley Laderer

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

January 14, 2023


share icon Facebook logo LinkedIn logo

Table of Contents

When it comes to mental health, there’s a wide spectrum of types of symptoms and severity of symptoms that people can experience. Just as people may encounter serious acute physical health conditions that can be life-threatening, the same can go for mental health.

It’s important to recognize the signs of high acuity mental health conditions in order to ensure somebody’s safety and well-being.

Here’s what you need to know about high acuity versus low acuity when it comes to mental health. 

What does high acuity mean?

Whether in regards to physical, mental, or behavioral health, the phrase “patient acuity” refers to how severe and acutely threatening an individual’s condition is. Determining a patient’s acuity level will help medical or mental health professionals decide what level and intensity of care somebody needs –– and how urgently they need it. 

If a patient is high acuity, that means that their condition is severe and imminently dangerous. This is something that the patient needs significant treatment for ASAP, to benefit their own health, safety, and sometimes, the safety of others. They may require closer monitoring, more frequent interventions, or specialized types of treatment.

All of this ensures the patient is stabilized and safe.

High acuity patients may have multiple co-occurring conditions, be at a high risk of complications, or experience an acute flare-up of a preexisting chronic condition.

On the other hand, if a patient is low acuity, that means that it may be okay to delay treatment for a bit since the issue is not as urgent or imminently dangerous.

This is not to invalidate the struggles of low acuity patients or to say that they don’t need adequate care, too –– it’s just that they are not in as much of a life-threatening or urgently dangerous situation. 

To illustrate an example of this, you can think of a teen who abuses substances, self-harms, and has suicidal thoughts as a high acuity patient. Due to the dangerous nature of substances, the potential to overdose, the potential to become seriously hurt, and the suicide risk, this is an individual who needs intervention as soon as possible. On the other hand, there may be a teen who feels stressed out surrounding school testing and homework. Although they feel stress and anxiety, which are very real, the symptoms are not suggestive of impending danger for the individual, putting them in the low acuity category. 

What are high acuity mental health conditions? 

Any mental health condition or symptoms where an individual is in danger of hurting themselves or others warrants high acuity. In these situations, the patient requires speedy and usually intensive treatment to ensure safety. Some examples are:

Severe major depression

People who are going through a severe depressive episode may be openly suicidal saying that they want to die, or hinting at it. They may also exhibit behaviors like abusing alcohol or drugs, taking dangerous risks, or running away.

Severe bipolar disorder

People with bipolar disorder can experience shifts from manic states to low depressive states. Both scenarios have the potential for danger. During a manic episode, someone may get very angry and intense, or they may take reckless risks (for example, driving carelessly or abusing substances). They might also hallucinate. During a depressive episode, someone with bipolar disorder may cry uncontrollably, feel intense sadness, or have suicidal thoughts.

Join the Charlie Health Library

Get mental health updates, research, insights, and resources directly to your inbox.

You can unsubscribe anytime.

Substance use disorder

Abusing substances can be very dangerous. If the person abusing a substance gets violent or tries to drive while under the influence, other people’s safety is at risk, too. Furthermore, there is the possibility of an accidental overdose which could lead to irreversible health consequences or death.


Schizophrenia can cause someone to lose touch with reality. They may have delusions or hallucinations where they see or hear things that do not actually exist. This can also cause someone to act or speak in “disorganized” or abnormal ways. Ultimately, this makes it hard for people with schizophrenia to function, and sadly, suicidal behavior is common. 

Severe borderline personality disorder

People with BPD may have very intense emotions, and struggle to regulate them. They might also engage in risky, dangerous, impulsive behaviors. Additionally, they’re likely to self-harm or exhibit suicidal behavior. 


Self-harm is also known as nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI). However, even though someone who self-harms isn’t necessarily trying to kill themselves, that doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. People may self-harm by cutting themselves, banging their heads into walls, or burning themselves. It is possible for someone to severely injure themselves, even if they didn’t mean to take it to such an extreme.

Suicidal ideation

While suicidal ideation in and of itself is not a “condition,’, it is a symptom that needs to be taken very seriously and addressed as a mental health emergency. People with or without a mental health condition may experience thoughts of suicide or make plans to kill themselves.

A teen struggling with a high acuity mental health condition walks into school

How virtual mental health care can reach more high acuity patients

In many instances regarding these conditions and symptoms, admission into a hospital or some sort of residential treatment is necessary so the individual can be closely monitored, receive specialized in-person intensive treatment, and be kept safe 24/7. 

Many people with high acuity mental health conditions do not have access to the care they need. 

In cases where in-person inpatient hospitalization or residential treatment isn’t needed, virtual mental health care such as virtual intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) can reach more high acuity patients.

In an IOP, patients have therapy –– both individual and group –– over the course of multiple hours and multiple days a week. IOPs are an excellent option for patients who don’t need 24/7 in-person care, but do need therapy that’s more intensive than the typical once-a-week session.

Telehealth also presents a great opportunity for people who live in a “healthcare desert” where there are little to no care options. Even in areas that do have primary care providers, they may be seriously lacking mental health providers and behavioral health services.

A common example of this would be a very rural area. Recent research found that 80% of counties in the United States lack adequate care. –– and this is a matter of public health and safety. Luckily, telehealth and virtual IOPs can be a solution for many people in these areas. 

How Charlie Health can help 

Are you a teen or young adult who’s struggling with a high acuity mental health condition? Or, do you think one of your loved ones could be a high acuity mental health patient? If so, Charlie Health may be able to help.

Our personalized virtual intensive outpatient program provides treatment for teens, young adults, and families dealing with a variety of struggles. In our program, patients will be matched with therapists who meet their specific mental health needs, and get connected with a group of peers from similar backgrounds.

Help is here now. We’re available 24/7 to get high acuity patients started on their healing journey.

Charlie Health shield logo

Comprehensive mental health treatment from home

90% of Charlie Health clients and their families would recommend Charlie Health

Girl smiling talking to her mother

We're building treatment plans as unique as you.