What is intensive outpatient treatment for substance abuse?

Intensive outpatient for substance abuse is basically a type of rehab you attend at least 3 days a week for 2-4 hours a day or more, often scheduled around work or school. More here on this option for addiction treatment here.

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Q: What is intensive outpatient treatment for substance abuse?

A: A type of rehab you attend at least 3 days a week for 2-4 hours a day or more, often scheduled around work or school.

Here we review the goals, intensity, duration, settings and stages of intensive outpatient treatment to help you get a better understanding of it. Maybe this type of treatment will fit your needs and schedule! Then, at the end, we invite your questions and comments about inpatient vs. outpatient addiction treatment (which we try to answer as personally and as promptly as we can).

Intensive outpatient treatment definition

Intensive Outpatient Programs, or IOPs, are treatment programs recommended by clinical and medical professionals, suitable for some patients in need of substance abuse treatment. This program provides assessment and primary treatment services, at significantly lower costs than inpatient rehab. It’s designed for individuals from the age group of 18 years and older, seeking primary treatment for alcohol and illicit or prescription drug abuse and drug addiction. IOP is mostly recommended for those who don’t need medically-supervised detox or for those who have already completed a residential treatment program and need additional recovery support.

Intensive outpatient treatment goals

Although IOP is not a live-in treatment program, it still requires a major time commitment. Meetings are usually scheduled at least 3 days a week for 2-4 hours a day or more, often scheduled around work or school. The major focus of intensive outpatient treatment programs is relapse prevention, but there is a number of goals this type of addiction treatment keeps in focus, including:

  • achieving and maintaining abstinence
  • addressing the underlying reasons that compel substance abuse
  • help clients to develop a positive support network
  • identifying psychological problems
  • implementing new and positive behavioral and lifestyle changes
  • improve coping strategies
  • introduce structure and discipline in clients’ lives
  • make participation in community-based support systems easier
  • teach new problem-solving skills

What happens during intensive outpatient treatment?

During intensive outpatient treatment, patients are grouped in treatment teams along with a physician, a primary and a family counselor, chemical dependency technician, and a licensed psychologist. The intensive outpatient treatment program is packed with individual therapy and group therapy sessions, educational lessons, psychotherapy, talk therapy, etc.

Intensive outpatient settings give patients the opportunity to attend treatment and continue living at home and working in the community. By doing this, you have the time to implement the developed recovery skills and process your experiences in a safe environment, which creates the basic conditions for the establishment of a substance-free life.

Main services of intensive outpatient treatment include:

1. Assessment and Detox

The initial clinical assessment determines if a person is suitable for intensive outpatient treatment. As a part of the assessment, you are provided with important and helpful counseling about treatment options that would best fit your needs. If the assessment shows that a medically-supervised detox is required, patients are referred to suitable detoxification services before you can attend IOP.

2. Psychotherapy

The intensive outpatient treatment includes individual counseling, group counseling, family therapy, attendance at self help groups, etc. A breakdown of these therapies follows.

  • Individual therapy –  Most individual counseling sessions in intensive outpatient treatment address the immediate problems that clients face, which originate from substance abuse, as well as the current efforts to achieve and maintain abstinence. The counselor helps you review treatment plans and coping strategies and talks about issues that are difficult to discuss in a group.
  • Group therapy –  In group therapy, counselors stimulate discussions that help participants relate to personal experiences and thus foster emotional and behavioral changes. Intensive Outpatient Programs provide clients with community-based support groups, such as 12-Step and other mutual-help groups as a part of the treatment process.
  • Family therapy – Although individual counseling sessions are mostly practiced in IOP, research shows that patients whose families are involved in treatment have better chances for success. Family members also need information and counseling to learn how to support and assist their loved one in recovery, and family therapy provides those skills.

3. Pharmacotherapy

Medication management and pharmacotherapy are an important part of the whole substance abuse treatment and shouldn’t be separated from the IOP model of treatment. Medications do not change the lifestyles of people in recovery and only target some specific aspects of the substance abuse disorders.

4. Education sessions

In these sessions, you examine the ways in which thoughts, emotions, and behaviors contribute to, or detract from a satisfying lifestyle or recovery. Then, you are provided with didactic instructions on relevant topics as medical aspects of alcohol or drug addiction and relapse prevention techniques. The goal is for recovering individuals to understand where the root causes of their drug addiction problems are and to learn new coping mechanisms, which will help them maintain a sober life.

5. Supportive Services

It is not uncommon for patients who are entering intensive outpatient treatment to have employment, legal, or social issues. Some IOP are prepared to address patients’ barriers to employment, such as limited formal education, poor working experience, or skill deficit. There are specialized vocational and employment counseling services which are an optimal part of treatment for some individuals.

What happens after intensive outpatient treatment?

As patients no longer need such intense professional support, shorter sessions are held less often as a part of the Intensive Outpatient Program. This is also referred to as a “step down” since patients become more independent and don’t need as intense support. This process is done gradually, as recovering alcoholics or addicts gain all skills to continue their addiction-free life.

Intensive outpatient for substance abuse questions

Do you still have questions about IOPs and how they work? Please leave your questions and comments in the section below. We’ll do our best to respond to you personally and promptly.

Reference Sources: NCBI: Substance Abuse: Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment
About the author
Debbie has been in the field of addiction for 20 years and represents Stepping Sober, an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) with recovery residence located in South Florida. In addition to being a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Debbie is certified in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Trauma Therapy.


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  1. Basically, as your article suggests, there are these intensive outpatient treatments that can help our comrades in rehabilitating themselves from substance abuse which only requires around 3 days a week of attendance for approximately 2-4 hours a day. That sounds perfect for my friend’s child as he’s currently suffering from substance abuse. I will try suggesting this treatment to my friend so that his son can still attend school while being treated. Thanks!

  2. I have a boyfriend who went into setox in Winston Salem and now he is going into an IOP he told me that a part of the program requirements are to disconnect to reconnect and that was why we had to keep our conversations private so that no one knows. I think honestly this is a little childish and i am not sure if this is just another one of his manipulative schemes to play the system so with his addiction and this going on is this normal and what should i do?

    1. Hi Julie. Every rehab program has different privacy policy, and contact restrictions. If you want to be sure that your boyfriend is not lying, I suggest that you call his rehab center and simply ask about this kind of policy.

  3. I have a good friend who is considering some outpatient counseling. He wants to stay in his own house, but he needs something intense to help him get over his issues. I didn’t realize that outpatient services often offered family therapy. That could be a really big help to his family, as I know they are struggling.

  4. I have gone through this blog and is very interesting. I was keen to know about the services of intensive outpatient treatment. Treatment should be taken on time else disorders can lead to life threatening situations.

  5. I was very interested in the various ways psychotherapy works. The Individual therapy is one I can relate to the most, though groups and family therapy have been helpful on various occasions. I don’t usually use medications in my therapy, though, since I have a slight addiction fear. Now that I have read this I can see the value it has in helping patients and their families.

  6. Excellent information for Intensive Outpatient Treatment. It gives very good information. Thanks for sharing this post.

  7. Have worked in the addictions field for a couple of decades. Personally I see the Intensive outpatient as nothing more than a money grab by outpatients. Show me outcome studies where they are more efficient than 90 minute 3 times per week with self help. The study must be done by someone other than a entity that has a vested interest. IE: SAMSHA

    1. Hello Sean. There are people who have realized they need help for their addiction problems and they seek for help. But, not everyone can afford an inpatient rehab stay, which promises the best recovery outcomes. IOP is intended for patients who have a strong will to change their lives, and everyone needs a little push. In fact, intensive outpatient is great type of treatment for those who can’t afford to take a vacation or leave their family behind, but still what to stay committed to their recovery process.

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