Intensive outpatient: What to expect?

A review of what happens during intensive outpatient for addiction here.

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Outpatient rehab settings require recovering addicts to spend several hours in an outpatient addiction program each week. But for some, traditional treatment for addiction may not be enough. So, when should you look for a program that offers more intense treatment? What does that treatment look like?

We explore the IN’s and OUT’s of intensive outpatient programs (IOP) here. We’ll take a look at the common stages of treatment, what happens during each, and give you the BIG PICTURE of what you can expect. Then, we invite your questions about rehab at the end. In fact, we try to respond objectively to all legitimate questions so that you can get the help or the answers that you need.

Intensive outpatient: How long?

Usually, people who attend intensive outpatient treatment will spend at least nine (9) hours per week in therapy groups and individual sessions. In fact, to be called “intensive”, this type of outpatient treatment requires a minimum of 9 hours of weekly attendance, usually in increments of 3-8 hours a day for 5 to 7 days a week. The frequency and length of IOP sessions is usually tapered as you demonstrate:

  • lower risk of relapse
  • progress in your treatment plan
  • a stronger reliance on drug-free community supports

Who does this treatment fit best?

This type of rehab is often recommended for people in the early stages of treatment or those transitioning from residential or hospital settings to home life. Intensive outpatient t is suitable for patients who do not need full-time supervision and have some available supports. Still, these programs provide more structure than traditional outpatient settings.

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Treatments during intensive outpatient

The treatments usually include day programs and evening or weekend programs that offer a full range of services. Like all other types of rehab programs, intensive outpatient programs generally employ a number of methods and services, including:

1. Screening and intake assessment

When you enter an inpatient program, you will be screened and assessed in a series of interviews using standardized questions. These tools are used to determine the severity of an addiction as well as to identify any co-occurring mental or physical health conditions. A treatment plan is then created to match your needs, and you will be referred to outside services, if necessary.

2. Psychological and behavioral treatments

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The goal of psychotherapy is to change destructive interpersonal feelings, attitudes, and behaviors to healthy ones. Recovering addicts will often be required to participate in individual counseling as well as group counseling and possible couples or family therapy for several hours each week.

3. Psycho-education

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Education sessions are also an important part of intensive outpatient addiction therapy. Recovering addicts will learn about the disease model of addiction while in treatment, as well as learn different tips and techniques related to recovery to help overcome cravings, prevent relapse, and connect with others.

4. Self-help groups

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Most programs also encourage recovering addicts to participate in addiction self-help groups, such as SMART REcovery, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Self-help groups offer mutual support and encouragement to help you become or remain abstinent before, during, and after formal treatment.

5. Supportive services

Intensive outpatient addiction treatment programs generally offer several different supportive services to recovering addicts. For instance, they may help recovering addicts get medical help, earn a degree, find suitable housing, or pay for intensive outpatient treatment.

What to expect after intensive outpatient

After completing an intensive outpatient program, a recovering addict needs to begin planning for the months ahead. An exit and aftercare plan is usually created at this time. You may continue attending the outpatient clinic, just not as often. An aftercare plan may also include what types of counseling are needed, as well as defining where you will live and work. Having a safe place to live and stable employment is important for anyone trying to overcome an addiction. Because of this, rehab staff may find it necessary to refer you to social services, such as vocational training and transitional living facilities.

Can you leave intensive outpatient treatment before completion?

Sure. But it’s not recommended. In fact, no one can be forced to join or complete an addiction treatment program. So, yes – you can leave an intensive outpatient program any time you’d like. However, this is certainly not in your best interest in you want to achieve long term sobriety. Why?

People who leave intensive outpatient before completion are much more likely to relapse and fall back into the old ways of addiction. Those who quit a treatment program before completion will not learn all possible coping mechanism and will most likely be unable to resist temptation. Quitting treatment can also result in feelings of failure and depression, making a drinking or drug problem even worse.

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Legal and family problems may also be exacerbated by not completing an addiction treatment program. If rehab was court ordered, for instance, a person can actually face incarceration if they quit before completion. Family and relationship problems are also bound to worsen if an addict does not complete treatment. Loved ones may become very frustrated and lose respect for an addict who can’t or won’t complete an addiction treatment program.

Visiting an intensive outpatient rehab

Visiting an outpatient rehab center to support a loved one is much like going to a community mental health center. There are many people who are actively engaged in communication, and you can expect a lot of talking. Openness and honesty is encouraged, but you will not be asked to participate in treatments you are uncomfortable with.

The amount of time that you will have to visit is related to the therapy session you will be attending. Most family therapy sessions last for about an hour or two. Educational or public sessions last for about the same amount of time. Participating in any type of rehab session as a visitor can help you rebuild bonds and broken trust. It can also help you better understand addiction in general and how to support your loved one throughout the recovery process.

Be prepared to follow the rules that the facility has in place. For instance, you may not be allowed to bring certain items into the facility, including alcohol or drugs. You may also be asked to limit physical contact with your loved one.

Intensive outpatient treatment expectations

Deciding whether or not intensive outpatient is right for you is a very personal decision to make. If you or your loved one think that this type of rehab may be right for you, speak to your doctor or a mental health professional as soon as you can.

In the meantime, if you have any questions or concerns about the effectiveness of IOP, entering or staying in intensive outpatient treatment, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments section below. We’re here to answer your questions every step of the way.

Reference Sources: SAMHSA: Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment
SAMHSA: Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment
SAMHSA TIP 47 Chapter 2. Principles of Intensive Outpatient Treatment
SAMHSA: A Guide to Substance Abuse Services for Primary Care Clinicians
State of Utah: Substance Abuse Treatment


About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. Thanks for pointing out that intensive outpatient therapy is suitable for patients who do not need full-time supervision and have some available supports. My mom is thinking about doing an intensive outpatient addiction therapy program because she doesn’t need hospitalization but she definitely still needs help. I think it would be good for her because for 9 or so hours a week she could be around people who she could talk to and who could really understand her.

  2. That’s cool that you can have an option to stay in your own home during treatment. Some people would feel uncomfortable or embarrassed about staying in a facility. That’s good that there is an option for people who have different needs than other people.

  3. My husband is going into an IOP – 5 days per week – 5 hours per day. I’m happy about this but what happens after he completes the program.


    1. Hi Dee. To remain sober, people in early recovery are encourage to enroll into an aftercare program. Usually, the treatment center he is going into should recommend an ongoing care plan. A good aftercare program consist of a stay at a sober house, individual counseling, group meetings, and similar activities.

  4. Thanks for explaining that the length of outpatient sessions usually decreases as the patient demonstrates progress in their treatment and a lower risk of relapse. My younger sister has an addiction to opiods, but she recently told me she’s finally ready to seek help and change her life. I wanted to learn more about her options for addiction treatment, so thanks for explaining how intensive outpatient treatment works and how the session lengths are determined.

  5. Im not realy a drug addict but the cop caught me and plant me a drugs so that i got in jail,the court sentnce me for rehab bot the doh trh was a over populated so that they enroll me for out patient program,,im in bulacan ,,what will happen if i will attend ?? What will happen if i will not attend the program

    1. Hi Billy J. Refusing a court-ordered rehab may result in immediate incarceration, large fines, and/or increased sentencing time.

  6. My cousin wanted to be sober, go back to school and finish his studies. It was explained here that there will be self-help groups for outpatient treatments to help him out. Having said that, it’s best to go to consult professionals for reliable outpatient treatment service.

  7. I was in stop program intervention an complete it an had to get realsed to iop I chose one but now I want to switch to a different one that is better for me I’m also on ilc probation an it’s recommend u do iop so can I switch

    1. Hi Kelly. Call the helpline you see on the website to get in touch with a trusted treatment consultant who can help you find the best program for you.

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