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The Ultimate Guide to Outpatient Treatment

As a parent, you want the best for your child when they’re struggling with mental health issues. Outpatient treatment could be a great option, but you may not know where to start. “Which outpatient programs near me are good for my child?” could be just one of many questions on your mind, and you may feel a sense of urgency given reports that COVID-19 is having a negative impact on today’s youths.

  • 25% of young people have experienced depressive symptoms during the pandemic, according to a recent U.S. surgeon general advisory.
  • Adolescents are experiencing higher rates of anxiety, depression, and stress due to the pandemic, according to a recent systematic review of 16 quantitative studies, published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

This guide provides a helpful overview of outpatient treatment, including a look at the types of treatment available, when they’re appropriate for your child, and how to identify the best option.

Outpatient Treatment: What It Is and How It Differs From Inpatient Care

Outpatient treatment programs provide quality behavioral health care while young people live at home. They can still go about their normal daily activities, such as attending school or going to work, and they can continue to be around family and friends. When they need to access care, such as counseling sessions or medication management, they visit a treatment center or a clinician’s office. They don’t need to live somewhere else while they start the healing process.

“What I love about outpatient treatment is that in addition to group therapy sessions, you have the opportunity to see somebody for just an hour, and they know that they have support,” said Amanda Nicholson, LMFT, M.Ed., assistant clinical director for Embark at Atlanta North.

“Clients know that ‘I can have support, someone to talk to who’s nonbiased, who’s not my parent, and I can talk to this person for one or two hours a week and know that they have my back.”

Outpatient treatment also includes intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) and partial hospitalization programs (PHPs) for when young people need more than an hour or two of therapy a week but can safely remain living at home.

With inpatient treatment, also known as residential treatment, 24-hour care is provided in a safe, secure facility. This is an ideal setting if young people need constant monitoring due to severe mental health disorders or substance abuse issues. They can work on healing while being away from negative or triggering factors.

Outpatient Treatment Options: From Basic Services to IOPs and PHPs

Outpatient treatment programs offer different levels of care depending on the amount of treatment required and the intensity of the treatment. They’re used for mental health issues including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, cutting, and eating disorders as well as substance abuse issues. 

Basic outpatient services

Basic outpatient treatment services are the least intense options and have the lowest cost. Those using this option maintain their daily lifestyle but regularly meet with mental health providers such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist for services including medication management and counseling sessions. Sessions can include individual, group, and family therapy. Therapy appointments are typically on a weekly or biweekly basis, while medication appointments can start off with that same frequency but occur less often once a medication is working well.

Intensive outpatient program (IOP)

An intensive outpatient program also offers therapy sessions but at a higher level of care. Those using this option visit a treatment center multiple times per week, typically for group therapy three hours a day, three to six days per week for three months. Individual therapy can also be a component of an IOP. The exact number of sessions per week and duration of treatment depends on the facility and the person’s needs. IOPs designed for teens and young adults provide sessions in the evening so they can continue attending school.

Nicholson noted that IOP participants and their families have more access to therapists than they would with basic outpatient services.

“With intensive outpatient, family therapy is happening the entire time the kids are in treatment,” she said. “It’s more access and more support.”

Partial hospitalization program (PHP)

A partial hospitalization program, sometimes called a “day hospital” or “day program,” also offers therapy sessions but in a more structured setting for those who need a higher level of care. Young people in these programs still live at home but commute to a treatment center for therapy sessions, typically for four to six hours a day, five days a week for several weeks or months. The duration of the program depends on the treatment center and the teen or young adult’s individualized treatment plan. PHPs provide access to mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, and therapy sessions such as individual, group, and family therapy.

“Kids who enter the PHP program usually come from residential treatment or are coming home from being in a hospital setting,” Nicholson said. “The goal is to help them get acclimated into a routine, a different level of treatment, and being home.”

When Is Outpatient Treatment Appropriate for Your Child?

Outpatient behavioral health therapy is not always the right choice for teens and young adults struggling with mental health disorders. Sometimes a higher level of care through an inpatient program is required. To help you decide if outpatient treatment is the best option for your child, consider the guidelines below and consult with a mental health professional who can evaluate your child’s unique circumstances and provide expert guidance.

Outpatient treatment could be beneficial if your child:

  • Poses no threat to themselves or others.
  • Does not require 24-hour medical supervision to keep them safe as they receive treatment.
  • Can maintain boundaries set by parents for home life (e.g., obeying curfew, attending class, communicating appropriately with family members).
  • Has a home environment that won’t interfere with their ability to heal and make progress.
  • Is motivated to participate in treatment.

How Can You Identify the Best Outpatient Therapist or Treatment Center?

Once you’ve decided outpatient treatment is appropriate for your child, it’s time to pick the right provider. Here are a few general guidelines:

  • Consult your child’s therapist or doctor for recommendations. You can also find mental health professionals through Psychology Today and outpatient treatment programs through the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs.
  • When identifying a facility, look for an accredited treatment center, such as one accredited by The Joint Commission. Behavioral health programs with this accreditation have met established standards put in place to protect your child.
  • Understand the levels of care that are available at the treatment center, as this information will help you make the best choice for your child. In addition, verify which age range the program serves, as some programs don’t see young people under or over a certain age.
  • Consider the treatment center’s location, as distance can be a factor. How far can you drive, and if it’s a long distance, are you OK with the cost of transportation? Do you need an outpatient program that’s nearby so family members can accompany your child to treatments or therapy?
  • Check your insurance coverage and the program’s payment options by contacting your insurance company and the treatment center you’re considering. This can help you best prepare for the cost of treatment and ensure it’s as affordable as possible — and that you’re not surprised by unexpected charges or bills later.

Taking the Next Step

By carefully considering your child’s mental health issues and needs and the outpatient treatment options near you, you can make an informed choice about who can best help your child heal.

“What I’ve seen is that many kids don’t feel heard. Connecting them with mental health treatment gives them a safe space to feel heard, to feel understood, and to normalize their feelings,” Nicholson said. “This sets them up for the future because if we normalize therapy now, during the teen and young adult years, as they get older, they’re more likely to reach out to a mental health provider to get support.”

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.