Does Outpatient Therapy for Drug Addiction Really Work?

If you or a loved one need help with drug addiction, you have decisions to make about treatment. But do you know all your options?    Many people think of inpatient rehab when they think of addiction treatment. But if you aren’t aware of the outpatient treatments in your community, you’re missing part of the story. Outpatient therapy for drug addiction is effective, affordable and convenient. Here we’ll go over how outpatient treatment works, who it’s best for and research-backed information to support effectiveness.  

What Is Outpatient Therapy For Drug Addiction?

Outpatient therapy for drug addiction is for people who don’t qualify for inpatient rehab but need more than one session a week. Here’s more about how outpatient works and the common treatment services.  

Intensive Outpatient Treatment (IOP)—How It Works

Most outpatient programs for drug addiction hold several sessions per week. The amount may vary depending on the program. Treatment often includes both individual and group sessions.    Some programs may use other therapies involving exercise or creative arts. A person can stay accountable for their recovery while living in their own home. Many people can continue working or going to school as they complete treatment.   Therapists may address other mental health needs like depression or PTSD. They may also work through issues discussed in group therapy. A person spends most of the time between sessions in their usual surroundings, like work or home.    This approach allows them to use what they learn from therapy in the real world. A person can discover what’s helping them and where they need more support.    Outpatient treatment may not be suitable for everyone. Outside stressors may make it difficult to stay on track at times. But with IOP, a person can adjust and benefit from the outpatient approach.  

Structured Care With Some Flexibility 

Therapy is a significant time commitment; it means going to therapy several weeknights or on weekends. But outpatient programs can work well with busy schedules. These programs work best for people who can manage rehab and other responsibilities.  Along the way, people learn how to manage stress and communicate. A person may gain as much from coping with daily challenges as they might in therapy. Here are three common options for outpatient drug treatment: 

  • IOP: Intensive outpatient programs (IOP) take place at a therapy clinic or treatment center. It often includes both individual and group therapy. Sessions are held in evenings and weekends to offer flexible scheduling. 
  • VIOP: Virtual intensive outpatient programs (VIOP) are similar to traditional IOP treatment. Sessions are held remotely over the phone or video chat. Many IOP programs switched to a VIOP format in 2020. This setup helped people stay in treatment during the pandemic. 
  • PHP: Partial hospitalization programs are held for several hours a day for most days of the week, which works well for people who need more structure than IOP but do not need inpatient care.


Who Does Outpatient Treatment Works Best For?

Each person seeking recovery has unique needs, so there’s no one-size-fits-all treatment program. Here are some examples of how outpatient drug treatment programs can work with different scenarios.  

Those With Less Critical Substance Use 

Addiction can look different depending on the person and the substance they use. A person may not be a good fit for outpatient rehab if they have the following challenges:  

  • Intense cravings and physical symptoms of withdrawal
  • Multiple substances
  • More than one mental health disorder
  • Difficulty managing their schedule on their own

Going through an outpatient program means facing stressors with less support. A person will encounter triggers in their daily environment. Some may make a person want to use substances again. It’s normal to feel some temptations, even if a person is well-suited to outpatient therapy. But if they can manage these challenges, outpatient rehab can be a good fit.  

Those Stepping Down From Residential Treatment

Residential treatment provides 24-hour support and guidance. It takes a person’s full attention. This level of care can help people with multiple health needs. But it is very different from independent living.  Going from a structured program to normal home life is a big change that can be stressful and overwhelming. A person may not cope well and be at risk for relapse. IOP and PHP treatment offer structure and support. It is more intensive than typical once-a-week therapy. But neither type of treatment involves overnight stays.  This in-between step allows a person to adjust more slowly to regular life. It’s like going gradually down a ramp instead of taking one giant step down. It helps reduce stress and keep goals realistic during the transition.  

Those Who Need Treatment But Aren’t Sure Where to Start

If you aren’t sure how to enter rehab, outpatient drug rehab programs can be a good starting point. Here are some benefits of beginning with outpatient treatment.

  • Intensity and focus—Many programs have group and individual therapy. Many programs meet several times a week. This intensity can help address issues quickly with expert care.
  • Available in many communities—Chances are good that most people can find IOP treatment in their area, which can save on travel time, cost and waiting time.
  • Therapeutic evaluation—Therapists do a thorough evaluation at the start of IOP. If it seems that IOP is not the right level of care, therapists have the information they need to recommend another option.
  • Qualifying for a higher level of care—Sometimes, a person needs to show that they have tried other substance use treatments before inpatient care; this may be for insurance approval or admission. 


Those With Work, School or Family Obligations

It’s not always possible to step out of obligations like work, school or family. Sometimes outpatient care may be the best choice for the whole family.  A person with many needs may benefit from inpatient care. But income and parenting needs may need to be considered. Outpatient rehab may be a more practical option. IOP programs offer the most flexibility with evening and weekend sessions; this minimizes the need for child care or schedule adjustments. Partial hospitalization may be more challenging with a full-time job. But, some workplaces may be flexible with a treatment program. Even with some adjustments, outpatient rehab may still work better than inpatient treatment.  

Those Needing More Affordable Treatment Options 

Inpatient drug treatment can be expensive. Also, there are far fewer residential programs around the country than there are outpatient programs. It also adds the cost of travel and possibly lodging to the picture. Some programs are only 30 days, but others can be up to several months in length.  Even if inpatient rehab is not beyond a person’s budget, family finances still factor into the decision. The cost of a high-quality inpatient program can be a significant burden. For these situations, a more affordable option may need to be on the table. IOP or PHP treatment can provide a higher level of care at a more affordable cost. The lower cost of outpatient drug treatment programs may ease some of the worries of getting started. A person may still need a more inclusive program after a while. But starting with an intensive treatment gives more time to find financial solutions.   

Does Outpatient Treatment Really Work?

The most effective treatment program is the one that fits your needs the best. Both outpatient and inpatient treatment can be life-changing, and the statistics show this. According to a Psychiatric Services study, researchers reviewed over a dozen studies focused on drug treatment outcomes. The study showed that out of everyone who attended drug rehab, between 50-70% of them had not used any substances at follow-up. Most importantly, this outcome was the same for both inpatient or outpatient drug rehab programs. You don’t necessarily need to go to inpatient rehab to have a good result. And while no program is exactly alike, you can choose outpatient treatment with confidence if it’s a good fit. Here are more information tidbits about the effectiveness of outpatient treatment:

Local outpatient program and better treatment outcomes

According to a study by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, people who traveled less than a mile to treatment were 50% more likely to complete their program. 

Cost-effective treatment with similar effectiveness

As explained in a Health Services Research article, outpatient drug treatment was the most cost-effective type of treatment compared to inpatient, residential and outpatient detox. The effectiveness of each treatment type was similar.

Residential treatment may not always be the most beneficial

According to the Recovery Research Institute, treatment completion is connected with reduced substance use and a better quality of life. But residential treatment does not provide the same degree of benefit for all types of substance use. People misusing opioids gain more from inpatient treatment. People misusing marijuana see less benefit, making outpatient treatment a good alternative.  

Working Through Treatment Takes Time

Choosing a treatment program is just the beginning of the process. It’s up to each individual to work through the steps and find their way. According to the Recovery Research Institute, some people start recovery several times, with an average of two serious attempts; it may sound like a failure, but it’s actually encouraging news. Consider other long-term conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease. Those require ongoing care and are often seen as effective even if some symptoms persist, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse notes. Treatment takes time, and sometimes adjustments are needed along the way.  A person going through addiction treatment may go through a similar process. The less stigma around drug addiction treatment, the better chance people can work through recovery with treatments.   

Effective Outpatient Treatment Options

Outpatient therapy for drug addiction works. Research shows that outpatient treatment can be effective and more affordable than residential programs. Outpatient treatment may not be a fit for everyone, but it can be an excellent place to start. If you have questions about outpatient drug rehab, call our admissions specialists today at 713-528-3709.

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