Using Outpatient Care as a Primary Source of Addiction Treatment

With over 8 percent of the adult population in the United States battling addiction in 2014, as published by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), there is a real need for variable forms of addiction treatment.

Addiction is a highly personal disease, and treatment models will differ from person to person, depending on each individual’s circumstances and requirements. No two people are exactly alike, and neither then are any two addiction treatment plans.

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In general, there are two main forms of addiction treatment: inpatient or residential treatment and outpatient treatment. Residential programs are typically considered the most comprehensive option, as individuals remain on site for a set amount of time, receiving around-the-clock and highly structured care and attention. These programs may not work for everyone, however. Often, the flexibility of an outpatient care plan is favored. Outpatient programs tend to be more cost-effective than residential ones, and when individuals have a strong support system at home, they may be the preferred choice. Regardless of whether a person attends a residential or outpatient addiction treatment program, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recommends that the program last at least 90 days.

Specifics of an Outpatient Addiction Treatment Program


There is some variability within outpatient addiction treatment programs. Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) often mirror residential treatment plans, with sessions and meetings scheduled throughout the day, and then the individual returns home each night. These programs often work well for individuals who have families or other stipulations or obligations that prevent them from staying away overnight. An IOP can offer a high level of care that is similar to that of a residential addiction treatment program.

Standard outpatient programs allow for even more flexibility, as individuals can schedule their meetings and sessions around their existing schedules and prior commitments. These programs may be optimal for individuals who have work, school, or family obligations that are inflexible. Individuals who are less dependent on drugs or alcohol, who have been abusing substances for less time, and who have a supportive home environment may prefer an outpatient addiction treatment program.

These programs may include a variety of treatment options, including:

  • Detox services: These services may be provided first before entering into a treatment program and can be performed on either an outpatient or residential basis, depending on the specific needs of the person.
  • Therapy: Therapy often includes both group and individual sessions, using behavioral therapy methods to help individuals uncover negative thought patterns and potential relapse triggers. Behavioral therapies work by helping people to change the way they think, thus bringing positive changes in the resulting actions.
  • Life skills training: Individuals are taught new ways of coping with stress, anger management techniques, and communication skills during life skills training sessions.
  • Complementary and holistic medicine techniques: Chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage therapy, spa treatments, art therapy, nutrition planning, fitness programs, and other alternative medicine techniques can be helpful when used in tandem with traditional addiction treatment methods.
  • Pharmacological tools: Medications are often a beneficial part of an addiction treatment program, especially if co-occurring mental or medical health problems are also present.
  • Relapse prevention: Individuals are taught how to recognize stressors and manage them in order to prevent a return to drug or alcohol use after leaving a treatment program.
  • Aftercare services: These services may include follow-up sessions and care, peer support and 12-Step groups, educational programs, and alumni programs to foster a long and sustained recovery.

Outpatient treatment programs also include regular monitoring of an individual’s alcohol or drug use during treatment. While some allow for self-reporting, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Improvement Protocols (SAMHSA TIP) reports that most will use some form of regular drug testing. Family education, training, counseling, and therapy sessions are often integral to helping a loved one in an outpatient treatment program. Outpatient programs may provide more privacy than an inpatient program, as individuals will not need to explain a prolonged absence to an employer or neighbor.

Outpatient programs offer individuals the opportunity to almost immediately apply the skills learned during sessions as they re-enter their homes and lives every day, which Psychology Today reports may be a benefit that is unique to outpatient programs. Every outpatient addiction treatment program will be different and tailored to the specific person receiving care.

Getting the Most out of an Outpatient Program

There are several ways in which a person can enhance their recovery when attending an outpatient addiction treatment program.

  • Make sessions, meetings, trainings, educational programs, etc., a priority. Be on time and keep all appointments as scheduled.
  • Join a support group. Peer support groups and 12-Step programs can be highly beneficial during treatment and recovery, as they can provide continuing support and encouragement as well as a healthy social network of others working toward the same thing: sustained sobriety.
  • Avoid places, people, and things that are reminders of drug and/or alcohol use. These can be triggers for a relapse.
  • Eat healthy and balanced meals. Stick primarily to foods that are high in protein, complex carbohydrates, and essential vitamins and minerals while avoiding refined sugars, fats, and processed foods. Drink plenty of water, and avoid caffeine.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can make it harder to think clearly and interfere with healing. By sticking to structured sleep schedules and getting a healthy amount of sleep, the body and mind are more prepared to face the day and remain emotionally balanced.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity can release healthy endorphins and promote good feelings in a natural way. Exercise can also improve physical health and self-image.
  • Stay busy. An occupied mind is less likely to focus on cravings or emotional lows. Engage in new activities or return to old, hobbies or creative outlets, such as painting, sculpting, writing, drawing, dancing, singing, or playing a musical instrument.
  • Get educated on addiction and recovery. Knowledge on what to expect is important so there are no surprises.
  • Stick to a regimented schedule. Having every hour planned out during treatment and early recovery can reduce idle minds and negative thoughts.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation. Learning how to be aware of the body and recognizing physical manifestations of triggers can be beneficial in curbing negative emotional outbursts. Mindfulness meditation can provide a strong connection between the mind, soul, and body, and improve self-awareness.
  • Be honest and open with family and loved ones. A solid support network can be incredibly beneficial, helping individuals as they work toward recovery.

With an outpatient treatment program, clients attend a variety of sessions and trainings as needed.

Progress should be continually monitored to ensure that the treatment is still the optimal choice and that families and individuals are moving forward together.

Regular assessments may be done in order to keep up with this. Individuals in outpatient programs generally have 24/7 access to a crisis or helpline as well.