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An Overview of Intensive Outpatient Therapy

Discover how intensive outpatient therapy can help treat addiction and mental health concerns in this comprehensive article.

Table of Contents

What Is Intensive Outpatient Therapy?

Intensive outpatient therapy is a treatment program that offers care for individuals with mental health or substance use disorders. Also known as an intensive outpatient program (IOP), this treatment option’s main goal is to enable individuals to gain control over their lives.

IOP focuses on addressing psychological triggers and developing coping and problem-solving skills. It involves attending regular therapy sessions several times a week. During each session, clients will learn to regulate their emotions and create a healthier lifestyle.
intensive outpatient therapy

How Does It Differ From Other Types of Therapy or Treatment Programs?

IOP is an intense level of care compared to traditional outpatient therapy. It is for individuals with more severe conditions who require frequent care. Compared to inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient therapy allows individuals to participate in other life activities while in recovery. This is because patients do not need to stay at the facility.
Most facilities, such as Boardwalk Recovery Center, use IOP as a step-down program for people transitioning out of inpatient care. It may also serve as an initial option for people who do not need intense care immediately.

How Common is IOP Utilized in Treatment?

Intensive outpatient therapy programs are a relatively common treatment option. According to the National Survey of Substance Abuse Treatment Services in 2019, 46% of substance use disorder treatment facilities offer IOP.1

Frequency and Duration of Sessions in an Intensive Outpatient Therapy Program

The frequency and duration of sessions in an intensive outpatient therapy program varies from person to person. Here is a general range:
  • Duration of Each Session: Three to six hours per day 
  • Frequency of Sessions: Three to five times per week
  • Length of Program: Three months or more

What Are the Components of an Intensive Outpatient Program?

Although the program details may vary for every facility, IOPs usually involve three to five sessions per week. Each session may last up to six hours. Although most intensive outpatient therapy sessions are held at the medical facility, there are programs offered online.

IOP often consists of three main components:

Individual Counseling

Individual counseling is a critical component of intensive outpatient therapy. It involves one-on-one sessions with a licensed mental health professional who provides the individual with support, guidance, and feedback.

The counseling session typically follows a standard format, with the therapist asking questions to better understand the individual’s issues, concerns, and goals. Sessions may last for thirty to sixty minutes and may occur weekly during the initial stage of treatment.

How Does Individual Counseling Help?

Individual counseling aims to help clients gain insight into their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It also aims to develop effective coping strategies to deal with challenges and problems in their lives.
The therapist focuses on helping the client identify and change destructive behavioral patterns. They use techniques that provide the individual the opportunity to explore some underlying causes of their issues and develop coping skills.
Individual counseling provides a safe space for patients to discuss their feelings and thoughts without fear of judgment or criticism. It helps clients:
  • Gain self-awareness
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Develop healthy relationships with others
  • Gain a sense of empowerment and control over one’s life

Group Therapy

Group therapy is another essential component of an intensive outpatient program. It involves providing therapy to a group of individuals with similar issues, such as substance use disorder or depression.

The group typically meets regularly, and a licensed therapist leads each session. Sessions typically last ninety minutes and include eight to fifteen members.

How Does Group Therapy Help?

Group therapy allows individuals to share their experiences and be a part of a supportive community. The peers at the treatment can give feedback in a supportive atmosphere that aids recovery.

The therapist teaches members how to build healthy coping strategies and relationships. Each session involves individuals working out their issues in a supportive environment with the aid of a therapist.
The group may focus on topics such as:
According to multiple studies, group therapy is as effective as individual therapy. Through group participation, individuals can gain insight into their negative behaviors. They will also learn how to understand their feelings and actions affect others.2

Psychoeducational Classes

Psychoeducational classes educate individuals about their mental health condition and provide them with practical skills to manage their symptoms. Through these classes, individuals will learn about the following:

  • Basics of mental health
  • How to recognize signs and symptoms
  • How to manage symptoms and triggers
  • Healthy lifestyle habits
  • Self-care 
  • Mindfulness techniques

The classes help increase the motivation for recovery and develop improved coping skills. It also enables individuals’ families to better understand what they are going through.

What Are the Features of Intensive Outpatient Therapy?

Intensive outpatient therapy is an effective way for individuals to receive care while maintaining their daily lives. Here are some of the common features of intensive outpatient therapy that aid recovery:

Treatment Plan Tailored to Each Client’s Needs

Intensive outpatient therapy provides a customized treatment plan for each client based on their unique needs. This plan includes various therapies and treatments the medical team designed to help them overcome their specific mental health or substance use disorder.

The treatment plan may include the following:
  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Psychoeducational classes
  • Holistic therapies
  • Medication management

Flexible Scheduling for Clients With Other Obligations

Intensive outpatient therapy offers flexible scheduling to meet the needs of the patient. This is especially important for individuals who have work, school, or family commitments that they cannot neglect.
Intensive outpatient therapy typically offers day and evening sessions, and clients can choose the schedule that works best for them.

More Intensive Therapy Than General Outpatient Programs

Intensive outpatient therapy provides intensive therapy that addresses psychological triggers and helps develop coping and problem-solving skills. The therapy is provided through individual counseling and group therapy sessions.
The goal of these sessions is to help individuals gain control over their emotions and create a healthier lifestyle.

A Sense of Community and Belonging

Those struggling with mental health or substance use disorders often feel isolated and alone. Intensive outpatient therapy offers peer support that provides individuals with a sense of community.

Peer support groups allow clients to connect with others who are going through similar experiences. This can provide a sense of comfort, understanding, and encouragement.

Medication Management

Medication management is an integral component of an intensive outpatient program. A qualified physician may prescribe medication to help manage mental health or substance use disorder symptoms.

Clients receive regular check-ups to:
  • Monitor their medication’s effectiveness
  • Adjust dosages
  • Manage side effects
Medication is usually combined with therapy to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment to Address Multiple Disorders at Once

Dual diagnosis treatment is for individuals struggling with both a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder. It aims to address both disorders simultaneously, as one can often exacerbate the other.

The treatment plan is customized to meet each client’s specific needs and may typically include:

  • Medication management
  • Therapy
  • Support groups

Relapse Prevention Strategies

IOPs provide relapse prevention strategies to help individuals maintain their recovery. Relapse prevention strategies include the following:

  • Recognizing triggers
  • Developing coping skills
  • Creating a strong support system
  • Managing stress, anxiety, and depression

Aftercare Support to Ensure Long-Term Recovery

Once patients complete their treatment, they may continue to receive support through aftercare services. This helps patients maintain their recovery and prevent relapse. Aftercare support may include the following:
  • Regular check-ins with a therapist
  • Referrals to community resources
  • Participation in support groups
One study found that group counseling aftercare for cocaine dependence had higher abstinence rates than individualized prevention. This highlights the importance of community and ongoing support from others.3

How Is the Level of Care Determined for Each Individual?

To ensure that each individual receives appropriate care, IOPs use a variety of strategies to assess the patient’s needs and provide treatment tailored to their specific requirements.
Below are some of the ways intensive outpatient therapy treatment teams ensure they provide appropriate care for each individual’s needs:

Comprehensive Assessment

Before starting the IOP, the client will undergo a comprehensive assessment to determine their individual needs. The assessment will include:
  • A review of the individual’s medical history
  • A psychological evaluation
  • An assessment of their substance use, if applicable
The treatment team will use this information to develop a personalized treatment plan that meets the client’s specific needs.

Ongoing Assessment and Monitoring

Intensive outpatient therapy continually assesses and monitors the individual’s progress throughout their treatment. This allows the treatment team to adjust the client’s plan as needed to ensure they receive appropriate care.

Collaboration With Other Health Care Providers

IOPs often collaborate with other health care providers involved in the client’s care, such as:
  • Primary care physicians
  • Psychiatrists
  • Therapists
  • Counselors
This ensures that the client is receiving coordinated care that addresses all their healthcare needs.

Who Is Best Suited for Intensive Outpatient Therapy?

Intensive outpatient therapy is typically recommended for individuals who require more structured treatment than traditional outpatient therapy but do not need round-the-clock supervision and medical care in an inpatient setting.
Here are some examples of individuals who may benefit from intensive outpatient programs:

Individuals Who Have Completed an Inpatient Program

Intensive outpatient therapy is often an appropriate next step for individuals who have recently completed an inpatient program. It helps those who still need ongoing support to maintain sobriety or manage their mental health symptoms.

Individuals With Moderate to Severe Substance Use Disorders

Intensive outpatient therapy is ideal for individuals struggling with substance abuse but do not require inpatient detoxification or medical supervision in a hospital setting.

Individuals With Moderate to Severe Mental Health Disorders

Intensive outpatient therapy can help individuals struggling with mental health disorders who require more intensive treatment than traditional outpatient therapy. Some examples include:

Individuals With a History of Relapse

Intensive outpatient therapy can help those with a history of relapse and require additional support and accountability to maintain their recovery.

Individuals With Limited Support at Home

Intensive outpatient therapy may be appropriate for individuals who do not have a strong support system at home, as it provides a more structured and supportive environment.

Individuals Who Cannot Take Time Off From Other Obligations

Intensive outpatient therapy is an effective option for individuals who are unable to take time away from their lives during treatment. The program allows them to attend work or school while receiving intensive care.

Ultimately, the decision to enter an intensive outpatient program will depend on the individual’s unique needs and circumstances. It is important to consult with a mental health or addiction professional to determine the most appropriate level of care.

What Therapeutic Modalities Are Commonly Used in Intensive Outpatient Therapy?

Various therapeutic modalities are used in intensive outpatient therapy, each designed to address specific aspects of an individual’s condition. Here are some common modalities and approaches:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used, evidence-based therapeutic modality in IOP. It is a goal-oriented approach that helps individuals identify and modify negative thought patterns and behaviors.

CBT emphasizes the importance of understanding the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The therapy aims to improve mood and overall functioning.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a form of CBT. It is an evidence-based approach emphasizing:4

  • Mindfulness
  • Emotion regulation
  • Distress tolerance
  • Interpersonal effectiveness
DBT teaches skills that help regulate intense emotions and improve interpersonal relationships.

Motivational Interviewing (MI)

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a client-centered practice that uses a non-judgmental, non-confrontational approach. It focuses on the following:

  • Resolving ambivalence
  • Increasing motivation for change
  • Identifying strengths and values
  • Encouraging positive changes
IOPs commonly use MI for individuals with substance use disorders.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a mindfulness-based approach that helps individuals accept difficult thoughts and feelings while committing to positive behavior change.

It teaches individuals to identify their values and set goals that align with those values. ACT is particularly helpful for individuals with anxiety and depression.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is a modality that involves working with the individual and their family to:

  • Improve communication 
  • Establish boundaries
  • Develop healthy relationships
  • Address any underlying issues within the family dynamic 
Family therapy can also help loved ones to better understand the individual’s condition and how to support their recovery. This can reduce feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation that both parties may be experiencing.

Holistic Treatment

Holistic treatments focus on treating the whole person, including their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. They are based on the belief that all aspects of a person’s life are interconnected and that treating the whole person leads to better health outcomes.
Some of the holistic treatments commonly used in intensive outpatient therapy include:
  • Yoga: Yoga is a mind-body practice that combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
  • Meditation: Meditation is a practice of focusing attention on a particular object, thought, or activity to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine practice that involves inserting thin needles into the skin at specific points on the body. It is used to relieve pain, reduce stress, and promote relaxation.
  • Massage Therapy: Massage therapy involves manipulating the muscles and soft tissues of the body to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and alleviate pain. 
  • Art Therapy: Art therapy uses art as a means of communication and self-expression. It can help individuals process and express difficult emotions, reduce stress, and promote relaxation. 
  • Music Therapy: Music therapy uses music to promote emotional and physical well-being. 
  • Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness practices involve intentionally focusing attention on the present moment without judgment. 
  • Nutritional Counseling: Nutritional counseling involves working with a nutritionist to develop a healthy eating plan.

Health Care Professionals and Providers Involved in Intensive Outpatient Therapy

Intensive outpatient programs involve a team of health care professionals working together to provide comprehensive and individualized patient care. They include:

Licensed Therapists or Counselors

These professionals provide individual, group, and family therapy as part of the IOP. They may use various therapeutic approaches, such as CBT, DBT, and MI.

Psychiatrists or Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners

Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners are typically involved in the evaluation and medication management of clients. They may work closely with therapists and other members of the treatment team to coordinate care.

Who Can They Prescribe Medication For?

Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners prescribe medication for various mental health conditions, such as:
These medical professionals may also prescribe medication for substance use disorders to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings.


Nurses may be involved in providing medical care, including administering medications and monitoring patients for physical health concerns. They may also provide education and support to individuals and their families.

Case Managers

Case managers help clients navigate the healthcare system and connect them with community resources such as:

  • Housing
  • Financial assistance
  • Employment services
They may also help clients set and achieve goals related to their treatment and recovery.

Peer Support Specialists

Peer support specialists have personal experience with mental illness and substance use disorders. They are trained to provide support and guidance to others going through similar experiences. They may facilitate support groups or one-on-one meetings.

Nutritionists or Dietitians

These professionals provide education and counseling on healthy eating habits and nutrition. They may also help individuals manage any dietary restrictions or concerns related to their medical conditions.

Get Your Treatment at Boardwalk Recovery Center

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we are dedicated to supporting individuals struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Our mission is to help you break free from the cycle of:

  • Mental health and substance abuse issues
  • Relationship problems
  • Financial hardships
  • Unsuccessful attempts at recovery

Treatment Options at Boardwalk Recovery

Our center provides an intensive outpatient program, outpatient drug program, and drug rehab aftercare.

We offer evidence-based treatments that have proven successful in helping individuals achieve and maintain sobriety, such as:

Discover Wellness and a Substance-Free Lifestyle

During your time at Boardwalk Recovery, you will have the opportunity to build a strong foundation for recovery and wellness.

Our team of highly trained clinicians, with degrees ranging from master’s to doctorate levels, will provide support throughout your entire journey toward sobriety. You will also be able to connect with individuals within the local recovery community, helping you cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning in your life.

Reach Your Full Potential – Reach Out Today

Every person deserves to live a life free from the harmful effects of addiction. At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we are here to help you achieve your best life yet. Contact us today to start your recovery journey.
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