How Do Intensive Outpatient Programs Work?
Intensive outpatient programs vary considerably in their treatment philosophies, methods, and in the resources they offer. Nonetheless, intensive outpatient programs are all alike in that they aim to help people recover from substance use disorders and the mental health conditions that are often associated with addiction. When you first arrive at an intensive outpatient program, the first thing to expect is an evaluation.
During this time, the IOP staff, a treatment team, or your case worker will evaluate you. Important factors include which drugs you use, how long you’ve used them, your physical health, your age, whether you have a family history of addiction, and your current state of mental health. They will also likely ask you questions about your relationships, your lifestyle, and the quality of your current social support system. Asking these questions helps IOP staff better understand your needs so that they can design an individualized treatment plan most suitable to you.
Intensive outpatient programs generally begin, when applicable, with a period of drug or alcohol detoxification. This detox period ensures that individuals achieve the physical abstinence from drugs and alcohol that is the foundation for further recovery. Most treatment centers recognize that merely remaining abstinent from drugs and alcohol is not sufficient for long term recovery. Instead, intensive outpatient programs work to help individuals develop a wide range of tools, coping strategies, and support resources so that they can avoid relapsing.
Recovering from a substance use disorder involves recognizing triggers as well as treating any underlying mental health conditions that may have driven people to abuse substances in the first place. Above all, recovery entails building a life that is worth living — a sober life that is joyous, fulfilling, and free. Armed with sober tools, a strong support system, and a new life that has meaning, people who attend IOPs are not likely to want to return to their old way of life.
Intensive outpatient programs offer a wide range of services and addiction treatment methods. These treatment methods and services are generally evidence-based and backed by considerable research. As intensive programs, IOPs encourage or require individuals to engage in a wide range of treatment methods. By engaging in a broad and comprehensive addiction treatment program, individuals can tackle their substance use disorder from every angle. Some of the most prevalent addiction treatment methods that IOPs use can be found below.
Group therapy is an essential aspect of addiction treatment at most IOPs. A large body of research has shown that group therapy is just as effective as individual therapy, and it has particular benefits for treating addiction. Individuals who take part in group therapy have opportunities to improve their communication skills and build connections with other people who are also working to recover from addictions.
Group therapy reinforces healthy ways of interacting, and it does so in a safe and supportive environment, allowing participants to learn from the experiences and perspectives of other people. Individuals who are newer to recovery often benefit in particular from the experiences of those who have been sober longer. Group therapy thereby fulfills three functions: it helps people learn new sober skills, helps people better understand themselves, and fosters vital sober social support systems.
Intensive outpatient programs generally offer a wide variety of different group therapy meetings, each with a different purpose. Types of group therapy offered at IOPs include:
- Psychoeducational group therapy. This type of group therapy is by far the most common. It involves a clinician leading a group to help them better understand the condition they all suffer from. By learning more about addiction, physical dependence, and the causes of addiction, individuals can develop a new set of tools for dealing with the challenges and problems that occur in early recovery. Participants also learn to rethink unhealthy beliefs, such as the belief that addiction is caused due to lack of willpower.
- Family group therapy. Family groups provide opportunities to IOP clients to heal or develop relationships with family members. Improving relationships with family members is a crucial aspect of addiction treatment, since many people are driven to substance abuse in the first place due to dysfunctional family relationships.
- Skills training groups. At skills training groups, IOP clients can work on and practice their new coping strategies in a safe, trigger-free, and supportive setting. Skills training groups often also cover pragmatic life skills, such as how to behave in a job interview.
- Relapse prevention groups. Relapse prevention groups are designed to help IOP clients recognize their own personal triggers. By identifying these triggers, they can begin to develop alternative ways of responding, rather than reacting automatically by reaching for drugs or alcohol. For many, preventing relapse is simply a matter of developing an awareness of these high-risk situations and learning to manage them.
Individual therapy is another essential aspect of addiction treatment in intensive outpatient programs. Individual therapy allows people to reflect on and come to a better understanding of the underlying issues that lie behind their substance use disorders. Many people turn to drug or alcohol abuse because they suffer from undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions like depression, ADHD, and anxiety.
Therapists can help people learn to cope with these conditions and reduce their severity. When people get relief from their mental illnesses, they cease to need drugs and alcohol to self-medicate for their emotional distress. For many people, the individual therapy they receive at an IOP represents the first relief they’ve ever gotten for their underlying mental health conditions.
Individual therapy can also be an effective tool for directly dealing with drug and alcohol addictions. Treatment modalities like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical-behavioral therapy (CBT) are based on the idea that a person’s thinking patterns directly influence their emotions and behavior.
By helping people develop alternative ways of thinking and responding to cravings, clinicians can help relieve clients of their obsession with drugs and alcohol. They also provide essential emotional support while clients are encountering the inevitable challenges and difficulties of early sobriety.
12-Step Programs and Support Groups
The vast majority of intensive outpatient programs recommend, encourage, or require that clients attend support group meetings. The most common and research-backed type of support group are 12-step programs. 12-step programs include meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, among countless others. These programs are designed to give people opportunities to connect with a larger community of people in recovery.
Members work to eliminate their obsession with substances by actively helping each other. At 12-step meetings, and even secular meetings like SMART Recovery, individuals in early recovery as well as those with many years of sobriety can continuously benefit from other members’ experience, strength, and hope. 12-step programs are available throughout every city around the world, and in Los Angeles there are hundreds of meetings at all hours of the day throughout the city. There is no charge for meeting attendance.
It is common for intensive outpatient programs to offer complementary therapies as well. CAM stands for “complementary and alternative medicine.” This umbrella term refers to a wide range of treatment practices that is designed not to replace, but to supplement traditional addiction treatment methods. Examples of CAM therapy include music therapy, yoga, art therapy, meditation, and even pet therapy. These practices can help improve people’s peace of mind, sense of connection to the world, and help them rediscover the joy of living without the crutch of psychoactive substances.
Intensive outpatient programs recognize that an important aspect of long term sobriety is being able to meet personal life goals. Individuals who are in active addiction often struggle to find or maintain employment, get out of debt, or manage their finances. Legal problems are common. Addiction can prevent people from developing essential communication and social skills as well, and the antisocial behavior that addicts engage in can damage relationships, leading to conflict and isolation. Treatment centers operate on the belief that sobriety is a trivial improvement if it is not accompanied as well with significant life changes. For this reason, intensive outpatient programs work with clients on an individual basis and in group settings to improve their general life skills.
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is an addiction treatment modality that involves a combination of behavioral therapies, some of which are listed above, alongside prescription medication. Individuals who are detoxing from alcohol and drugs often suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms, which can complicate the recovery process. These symptoms can trigger people to relapse and, in the case of benzodiazepine and alcohol withdrawal, be life-threatening. Prescription drugs such as buprenorphine and methadone (for opioid withdrawal) or acamprosate and naltrexone (for alcohol withdrawal) can help people get off dangerous recreational drugs. These medications reduce painful withdrawal symptoms and mitigate cravings. During medication-assisted treatment at an IOP, clients engage in behavioral therapies in order to develop the skills and coping tools they need to stay sober. When appropriate, a physician can supervise their withdrawal from their medications. This withdrawal involves a gradual tapering process that is designed to be as smooth as possible.