Intensive Outpatient Treatment: What is it and How Can it Help You Heal?

What is intensive outpatient treatment and how can it help you heal from mental health or substance use disorders? Find out here.

What Is Intensive Outpatient Treatment?

An intensive outpatient treatment program (IOP) provides help with mental health and substance use challenges. Intensive outpatient treatment is different from inpatient programs. They offer flexibility, and you don’t need to stay in a treatment center.1

Intensive outpatient treatment works well for people who don’t need medical detox or constant supervision. These programs provide a level of care that can help prevent the need for higher levels of treatment.

intensive outpatient treatment

Characteristics of Intensive Outpatient Treatment

The typical characteristics of intensive outpatient treatment include:

  • Structure: An IOP still provides a structured therapeutic environment. These programs offer a variety of services that may include individual counseling, group therapy, skill-building activities, and more.
  • Frequency and Duration: People go to a treatment center for several hours each day, multiple days a week. The schedule for outpatient services can vary. The aim is to provide intensive treatment that is more accessible than inpatient programs.
  • Support System: Intensive outpatient treatments often encourage participation in a community-based support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. These programs often include family members to support the person and build a strong system.
  • Flexibility: The intensive outpatient treatment approach allows individuals to remain in their home environment. This means they can still have a regular routine, like going to work or school.
  • Aftercare Planning: Intensive outpatient programs will often include aftercare planning. This planning helps participants maintain their recovery after they have completed treatment.

Other Types of Outpatient Treatment

There are many different outpatient treatments. These treatments vary in intensity and structure, addressing the diverse needs of those seeking help.

Besides intensive outpatient treatment, other types of outpatient treatment include:

Standard Outpatient Programs (OP)

This is the least intensive form of outpatient treatment. Individuals often attend therapy sessions once or twice a week for around 60 to 90 minutes per session.

These programs may include individual counseling, group therapy, or family therapy. This option is suitable for those with a strong support system and relatively less severe conditions.

Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP)

Partial hospitalization programs, also known as day programs, provide the most intensive level of outpatient care. Participants may attend the program for up to 9 hours per day, five to seven days a week.

When they return home at night, the daytime structure resembles that of inpatient care. A PHP is a good option for people who need a lot of help and structure but don’t need constant supervision. 

This enables individuals to maintain their daily responsibilities while undergoing recovery.

How Intensive Outpatient Treatment Addresses Individual Needs

Intensive outpatient treatment programs understand that individuals may have significant personal responsibilities. An IOP accommodates these needs in several ways, including:

Flexible Scheduling

Intensive outpatient treatment programs often offer services during early mornings or evenings to accommodate different needs. Many programs also offer services via telehealth. This allows individuals to attend treatment sessions outside of regular work hours.

Phased Treatment

Some programs may have phased treatment plans where the program’s intensity decreases over time. As individuals progress in their recovery and gain more tools to manage their condition, they may attend fewer sessions each week.

Customized Treatment Plans

The staff and the person collaborate to make treatment plans that meet their needs. They may consider their work schedule and other commitments. Program staff help clients make a practical plan that fits their recovery goals.

Coordination With Support Networks

An IOP can help people connect with support networks for help. One option is to join peer-led recovery groups. These groups might meet during lunch or after work.

Gradual Return to Work

For those transitioning from a more intensive treatment setting, intensive outpatient treatment can serve as a step-down service. This service can support a gradual return to full-time work while still providing a high level of care.

Intensive outpatient programs help clients find the best treatment approach. This allows them to manage their health while fulfilling daily obligations.

The Role of Trauma-Informed Care in Intensive Outpatient Treatment

To provide effective care, treatment programs should have a complete picture of an individual’s life and situation. This approach is called trauma-informed care. It recognizes that trauma affects a person’s well-being and relationships.2

Most people will experience trauma at some point in their lives, with about 6% of the U.S. population having a diagnosis of PTSD. Trauma-informed care plays a role in intensive outpatient treatment by:3

Creating a Safe Environment

The foremost principle of trauma-informed care is to create a sense of safety for clients. Intensive outpatient treatment ensures that the treatment setting is safe, with clear boundaries.

Screening for Trauma

An effective IOP incorporates screening for trauma into their intake process. Understanding a person’s trauma history is crucial for creating an effective treatment plan.

Evidence-Based Therapies

A trauma-informed IOP often uses therapy methods proven to help with trauma, like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). These approaches help individuals process and cope with their experiences.


A trauma-informed approach helps clients by giving them choices and a voice in their treatment. Intensive outpatient treatment focuses on building resilience and self-efficacy. This helps individuals to recognize their strengths and control their recovery.

Peer Support

An IOP may offer peer support groups, recognizing that shared experiences can be powerful when healing from trauma. These groups help people connect with others who have had similar experiences. This gives a sense of community and helps individuals to hold one another accountable.

Cultural Sensitivity

Outpatient programs include cultural sensitivity in their framework. They recognize the impact of cultural, historical, and gender issues on trauma and recovery.

Types of Approaches Used in Intensive Outpatient Programs

Many intensive outpatient treatments use a variety of evidence-based treatments. These approaches address the concerns and conditions of the individual. They have been rigorously tested and validated to be effective through research.

Evidence-Based Treatment Modalities

Here are some of the most commonly used evidence-based treatments in outpatient settings:4
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is often used to help with anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders. CBT focuses on changing negative emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. It is 50-75% effective in treating depression and anxiety.5
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT is a type of therapy that works well for people with borderline personality disorder. It also helps those who self-harm or have thoughts of suicide.
  • Motivational Interviewing (MI): MI is a type of counseling that helps people who are unsure about change and need motivation. It’s often used in substance use disorders.
  • Contingency Management (CM): CM provides tangible rewards for positive behaviors such as abstinence from drugs or alcohol. It’s been shown to be effective in treating substance use disorders.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a treatment for PTSD. It helps process distressing memories and beliefs using eye movements.
  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): To treat substance use disorders, doctors may use medications like methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone. These medications are provided along with counseling and behavioral therapies.
  • Group Therapy: Many outpatient programs offer group therapy. In this approach, individuals can improve their communication skills and gain insight from peers. They can also receive support.

Alternative Approaches for Outpatient Treatment

The use of alternative therapies in intensive outpatient treatment is becoming more prevalent. This is due to treatment providers seeking to address the whole person in recovery. These therapies are used with evidence-based practices to create a complete treatment experience.

Some alternative, holistic treatment opportunities include:


In this practice of traditional Chinese medicine, thin needles are inserted into specific points on the body. Acupuncture can help with mental health and substance use treatment by reducing cravings, easing withdrawal symptoms, and reducing anxiety.6

Creative Therapies

Music therapy utilizes music creation, listening, and discussion to achieve therapeutic goals. In an IOP, music therapy can improve your mood, reduce stress, and facilitate cognitive processing of trauma.7
People can use art to explore deep emotions and experiences by drawing or painting. Art therapy can help in processing trauma and reducing stress.8

Adventure-Based Therapy

This therapy uses outdoor activities, such as rock climbing or hiking, to challenge clients physically and emotionally. It can build self-esteem, teach problem-solving skills, enhance social skills, and promote teamwork.

Yoga and Meditation

These practices can help individuals develop mindfulness, reduce stress, and improve physical health. Yoga can be beneficial for individuals dealing with anxiety, depression, or PTSD. It combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation.

Meditation encourages a focus on the present moment. This can help in managing cravings and developing self-regulation skills.

Biofeedback and Neurofeedback

These therapies use electronic monitoring to help people control their body and brain functions. Teaching self-regulation skills helps manage stress, anxiety, and attention disorders.9

What Is Harm Reduction and How Does It Support Recovery in Treatment?

Harm reduction is about reducing the bad effects of drug use using practical strategies and ideas. Drug overdose deaths have increased in the United States, with a 50% increase from 2019 to 2021.

Harm reduction strategies might be able to help with this. Intensive outpatient programs with harm reduction understand that not everyone is ready or able to stop using.10

Harm Reduction Principles

Many intensive outpatient treatment programs might use harm reduction principles. They create a supportive environment where individuals can openly discuss their substance use. There is no fear of judgment or being required to stop completely before treatment.

Education About Safe Drug Use Practices

Offering education about safer drug use practices is an essential part of harm reduction. An IOP that uses these strategies educates clients on the risks associated with substance use and ways to reduce those risks. This might include educating about safer injection practices, understanding the signs of overdose, and the importance of not using it alone.

Harm reduction programs offer clean syringes, safe injection equipment, overdose prevention drugs, and safer sex materials. These resources help reduce the risk of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) in Intensive Outpatient Programs

Psychiatric medications and MAT are important in intensive outpatient programs. These interventions can be very useful for people with substance abuse and mental health problems. To help patients, these methods combine medicine and therapy for a whole-person approach.

These methods have many purposes, such as to increase awareness of medication-assisted treatment. The medications used in MAT are designed to:

  • Normalize brain chemistry
  • Block the euphoric effects of opioids
  • Relieve physiological cravings
  • Stabilize body functions

Medications Used in MAT

The medications used for opioid use might include methadone, naltrexone, and buprenorphine, while medications for alcohol use might include disulfiram and acamprosate. MAT is effective because it reduces the need for illegal drugs and helps people recover from addiction.

This method has been shown to increase survival, retention in treatment, and ability to gain and maintain employment. It also decreases illicit opiate use and criminal activity among people with substance use disorders.11

Medication-Assisted Treatment in Intensive Outpatient Treatment

MAT can play a crucial role in an IOP to provide comprehensive treatment. Once an individual enters treatment, they undergo a thorough assessment and evaluation. These assessments help the staff understand a person’s physical and mental health and substance use history.

The comprehensive evaluation is critical for identifying the need for any medication interventions. This could include medications for depression, anxiety, mood stabilization, and substance use disorders.

MAT and IOP Integration

The integration of MAT in intensive outpatient treatment programs goes beyond medication selection. It blends behavioral therapies, like CBT, with the use of medications to enhance the effectiveness of treatment. Intensive outpatient treatment also teaches participants about medications and how they are used.

An IOP helps people understand how important their medications are and how to take them correctly. An MAT aims to stabilize the person’s condition and improve their quality of life. It also helps them benefit from other therapies, increasing their chances of recovery.

The Importance of Skill-Building in Intensive Outpatient Treatment

Intensive outpatient programs understand how important it is to teach life skills. Skill-building might include addressing finances, vocational training, and employment readiness. These skills are important for staying on track for a long-term recovery.

An IOP determines what kind of skills training and support the individual might need through an assessment. After figuring out what they need, the treatment plan focuses on building those skills.

Intensive outpatient treatment programs may offer workshops or classes that teach basic life skills, such as:

  • Budgeting and managing debts
  • Saving for the future
  • Learning specific job skills
  • Training on resume writing and interview skills

Overcoming Potential Challenges That Could Harm the Recovery Process

When clients return to their daily lives, they often face stress and challenges that could harm their recovery. Intensive outpatient treatment can offer continuous support.

They help people apply coping strategies to new stressors. An IOP also provides resources to help people in recovery succeed in the long term.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment

Find Intensive Outpatient Treatment With Continuum Outpatient Center

Continuum Outpatient Center in San Antonio, Texas, provides treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders. Our program teaches skills to avoid relapse, heal relationships, and address past traumas.

At Continuum Outpatient Center, we provide ourselves with an individualized approach. We address mental health, substance use, and other co-occurring disorders. We know that life doesn’t stop because of mental health hardships, so we offer services that fit your schedule.

Reach Out to Us Today

Our team of licensed and certified professional staff provide person-centered and compassionate care. They provide you with the support to build resilience and learn the tools for a healthier, more fulfilling life.

At Continuum Outpatient Center, we offer a combination of evidence-based approaches, like CBT and DBT, with holistic wellness.

Looking for an effective intensive outpatient treatment? Our intake specialists will walk you through the services we offer and help you determine the appropriate course of action for you. Find help today at Continuum Outpatient Center.

Questions About Treatment?
Reach out to our knowledgeable and compassionate Continuum Outpatient Center team for the guidance and support you need for sustainable recovery. We’re here to help you build a foundation for long-term happiness, wellness, and healing.