Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment for Addiction: What’s the Difference?

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Treatment for Addiction: What’s the Difference?

There are many decisions to make when you or a loved one are faced with the life-changing challenge of entering rehabilitation. With this in mind, it is important to consider many factors before committing. One of the most important factors is deciding on “inpatient” vs. “outpatient” treatment options. 

Inpatient treatment generally refers to a drug or alcohol treatment program consisting of an intensive, residential experience that is designed to treat a more serious level of addiction. 

Outpatient treatment refers to a “part-time” program that is more like going to class or a doctor’s appointment before heading home for the day. Outpatient programs allow for the flexibility to live at home and generally can allow for patients to continue working or attending school. 

It is important for addicts as well as their loved ones to understand the pros and cons of different types of treatment before selecting a program. Finding the best treatment program can be the key to achieving lost-lasting sobriety.   

Understanding Addiction Recovery

It is important to understand some of the fundamentals of addiction recovery before making a final decision about which type to jump into. Rehab must address not only the addiction at hand but also several underlying factors (such as mental health) as well. 

While every rehab facility may have different ideas and strategies, there are some similarities that can apply across the board. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there are several factors that all successful rehab programs should address. 

Physical Well-Being

Many addiction patients come into treatment with serious health issues. One of the main goals of every rehab program is to reverse the negative health effects caused by drug or alcohol abuse. This will include easing withdrawal symptoms through medically supervised detox and using other methods (such as physical therapy techniques) to increase physical comfort and reduce pain. 

Mental Health

Over half of addiction cases have an underlying or accompanying mental health issue. These issues range from depression to anxiety or bipolar disorder. Any successful rehab program must address accompanying mental health disorders. If someone struggling with an addiction has a serious mental health disorder, that is known as a “dual diagnosis” or co-occurring condition. There are special treatment programs just for co-occurring conditions but the majority of rehabilitation programs offer mental health care in addition to addiction care. 

Social Skills

Drug and alcohol abuse can take a serious toll on a person’s social life. Addicts often use substance use as a crutch to mask social anxiety or a crutch to help them avoid social situations. Successful treatment programs will integrate therapy that helps patients rebuild and improve social skills.  

Environmental Triggers

Most drug or alcohol addicts have social or environmental triggers that will make sobriety difficult to obtain without a controlled environment. Whether it is stress, unhealthy relationships, or trauma, these triggers can lead back to substance abuse over and over. Addiction therapy must address the issues that cause patients to keep returning to the harmful behaviors of addiction.

Primary Differences Between Inpatient and Outpatient Treatment

At first glance, it may appear the only difference between inpatient and outpatient treatment is the ability to return home at the end of the day. However, this is only part of the equation. 

Inpatient (also known as residential treatment) is designed to remove distractions, environmental triggers, and temptations that can be present in our day-to-day lives. One main benefit of an inpatient program is the guarantee of a drug or alcohol-free environment. This cannot be said for the home lives of many people struggling with addiction. 

Those in inpatient treatment are constantly surrounded by people who have the same goals and intentions as them and will be there to hold them accountable. Inpatient treatment can be jarring but can also provide the structure and accountability necessary to make lasting changes.    

Outpatient treatment allows significantly more freedom than inpatient treatment, but with that freedom comes increased temptation. While they are more flexible, most outpatient treatment programs require a minimum number of hours spent in treatment per week. This can be done on campus or virtually. An outpatient approach to treatment will allow for a patient to maintain some normalcy with home and work life. Outpatient options can be great for those struggling with less intense levels of addiction or more demanding home lives but many of the environmental and societal triggers will still be present. 

Advantages of Inpatient (Residential) Treatment

Beating any bad habit requires limiting exposure to the triggers that cause the habit in the first place. If someone is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, it makes sense to remove drugs and alcohol from their proximity as much as possible. If someone is trying to lose weight, it would not be a great idea to be constantly surrounded by cake and cheeseburgers. 

This theory provides the backbone of inpatient rehab treatment and why it is generally the best course of action for someone with a severe or long-term addiction. Inpatient treatment specializes in providing a consistent, trigger-free environment where someone can focus solely on their recovery. Inpatient recovery allows a patient to be held accountable 24/7 and gives a support system that may not be present at home. 

The immersive nature of residential treatment also allows rehab facilities to offer a variety of different treatment and therapy options including one-on-one counseling, group therapy, recreation therapy, and even specialized opportunities like equine therapy. 

Many inpatient treatment centers also provide 24hr on-call medical care that can aid in some of the more difficult stages of treatment, such as detox. For some of the more habit-forming substances, like cocaine or heroin, this medical treatment can be an invaluable addition to a treatment repertoire. 

Inpatient treatment can be especially beneficial for dual diagnosis patients. The inpatient experience will allow these patients to have the best mental health and drug rehabilitation care in an environment that is supportive, understanding, and consistent. 

Advantages of Outpatient Treatment

inpatient vs outpatientWhile inpatient treatment can be extremely effective, not every patient requires that level of supervision and care. Inpatient addiction treatment can offer a high level of care while still allowing for the freedom to maintain some level of normalcy at home, work, or school. Not everyone has a level of addiction that requires a one- to three-month break from life. Many folks do not have the financial flexibility to take several weeks or months away from their job or family.  This is where an outpatient treatment program can offer a level of convenience that can allow for successful treatment without upending someone’s life. 

The price difference in the different treatment experiences is also something to consider. While an inpatient treatment experience certainly offers “more” in terms of care options, it can also be anywhere from 5 to 10 times the cost. Inpatient treatment can vary in cost from $5000 to $60,000 a month. While insurance can cover a portion of this, an inpatient option will still almost always be the more affordable path.

While price and obligation are certainly factors, inpatient rehab is generally best for patients who are seeking care for more mild forms of addiction. Generally, detox must happen in a supervised, residential treatment setting. Inpatient treatment can offer a flexible, effective environment for the right patients. 

Questions to Ask to Help Decide Which Treatment is Right

While we have discussed some of the pros and cons of inpatient and outpatient treatment, it is important to look at every situation individually and weigh the benefits and obligations carefully. There are some important questions to ask before you or your loved one commits to a treatment plan:

  • How long can I realistically step away from my life?
  • Do I need child care?
  • How serious is my addiction?
  • Are there serious environmental triggers in my home?
  • Will I be around drug or alcohol use often?
  • Is Transportation an issue?
  • What type of treatment does my insurance cover?
  • What type of treatment can I afford?

While there are certainly other factors to consider, this is a helpful checklist to push you towards the best treatment options for you. 

Start Your Treatment Journey with Chapel Hill Detox Today

Treating drug and alcohol addiction can be difficult and complex. Making the best treatment decision for your situation is an important step to successful sobriety. Treatment is a long-term investment that requires work and hardship before success can be achieved. Whether you decide on inpatient or outpatient treatment, our facilities and our team are here to guide you every step of the way.

If you or someone you love are dealing with the effects of drug or alcohol addiction, contact Chapel Hill Detox today. Our beautiful facilities feature professional and compassionate staff, various treatment options, and board-certified physicians. Let us help you begin the journey to recovery.



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