What Is Outpatient Treatment for Substance Abuse? | Treatment Solutions

Substance Abuse Outpatient Treatment: What Is It & How Does It Work?

Substance abuse is the use of a substance in quantities or ways that are dangerous to the user or others. In certain situations, criminal or anti-social behaviors may happen while the individual is under the influence of a substance. There may even be long-term behavioral changes in individuals. The use of such substances can also lead to criminal penalties, in addition to potential physical, social, and psychological damage, although these differ widely depending on the local jurisdiction.1

Alcohol, amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, methaqualone, cannabis, cocaine, hallucinogens, and opioids are some of the substances most frequently associated with this term. The exact cause of substance abuse is not clear, but the two main hypotheses are:1

  • Either a genetic disposition that is learned from others.
  • A habit that manifests itself as a lifelong debilitating disease if addiction occurs.

People with substance use and behavioral addictions may be conscious of their problem, but they might not be able to stop, even if they want and try to do so. Addiction can lead to physical and psychological issues as well as problems in relationships, either at work or with family members and friends. Alcohol and drug use is one of the main causes of preventable diseases and premature death nationwide.2

The first step toward recovery is acknowledging your or your loved one’s substance dependence. The next step is finding a suitable treatment program that can help overcome addiction and restore health. Outpatient treatment for substance abuse is one of the numerous treatment options.

what is outpatient treatment for substance abuse

What Is Outpatient Treatment for Substance Abuse?

Outpatient treatment allows a person to live outside the facility, at their home, as their life continues as usual. Mild addiction is usually treated in an outpatient rehab program. Also, outpatient rehabilitation serves individuals with severe substance abuse who have completed inpatient treatment and need more support on their path to recovery. Outpatient treatment is a vital stage of support after a stay in inpatient rehab care, as it helps people commit to and reach recovery goals while transitioning back to home and work life.3

In terms of intensity, outpatient treatment programs come in many forms and they differ in intensity. Treatment facilities should provide users with:3

  • Group therapy.
  • Education.
  • Individual counseling.
  • Structured skill-development.
  • Guidance on building a stable, supportive network with others in recovery at all stages of outpatient care.

Many outpatient facilities for addiction treatment are licensed to offer treatment for co-occurring mental health problems. Having a dual focus helps them address the needs of patients in care efficiently. It is important for therapists to recognize that substance abuse, mental health disorders, and stressful events can affect each other, making it worse and harder to overcome and handle individual problems. Outpatient treatment should also be designed to assess and meet all of the patients’ needs.3

What Outpatient Treatment for Substance Abuse Looks Like

There are various available treatment options for substance use disorders. Recognition of the issue is the first step. When a person lacks knowledge of problematic substance use, the rehabilitation process may be delayed. While professional interventions may prompt treatment, self-referrals are often welcome and encouraged.2

To determine whether a substance use disorder is present, a medical professional should perform a formal assessment of symptoms. Treatment helps all patients, regardless of whether the condition is mild, moderate, or severe. Unfortunately, many people who meet the criteria for a substance use disorder could benefit from treatment, but they often do not get it.2

Since substance use disorders affect many aspects of the life of an individual, various forms of treatment are often necessary. For most, the most effective is a combination of medication and individual or group therapy. In order to lead to successful rehabilitation, treatment approaches should address the particular situation of a person and any co-occurring medical, psychiatric, and social issues.2

Medications are used to control the cravings, alleviate withdrawal symptoms, and avoid relapses. Psychotherapy can help people with substance abuse issues understand their actions and motivations better, gain greater self-esteem, handle stress, and tackle other psychiatric issues.2

The recovery plan of an individual is specific to their particular needs and can include strategies outside of formal treatment. These may involve:2

  • Hospitalization for withdrawal management (detoxification).
  • Intensive outpatient programs.
  • Outpatient medication management.
  • Psychotherapy.
  • Mutual-aid groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, etc.
  • Self-help groups that involve members of a patient’s family, such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon Family Groups.

Why Is Outpatient Care Important?

There are several reasons why someone may prefer outpatient rehab over inpatient treatment and rehabilitation for substance abuse. There are numerous advantages of outpatient treatment and some of them are the following:

  • Individuals have the opportunity to continue working while receiving care.
  • It is more cost-effective than many inpatient services.
  • It is less disruptive to everyday life.
  • It allows patients to receive family support during the recovery process.



Frequently Asked Questions

  • Individuals should first learn to recognize substance abuse in order to know it’s time to seek treatment for themselves or a loved one. Substance use disorder symptoms are divided into four categories:2

    • Impaired control: A craving or a powerful urge to use the substance, desire or failure to reduce or control the use of substances.
    • Social problems: Substance use causes inability to complete significant tasks at work, school, or home. Social, work, or leisure activities are abandoned or cut back due to substance use.
    • Risky use: Substance is used in risky conditions and there is continued use despite known problems.
    • Drug effects: Tolerance (necessity to get the same effect with greater amounts) and withdrawal symptoms, which are different for each substance.

    Many individuals experience substance use disorder along with another psychiatric disorder, which is known as co-occurring condition. Sometimes, another psychiatric disorder precedes a substance use disorder, or another psychiatric disorder may be caused or aggravated by the use of a substance.2 Whether inpatient or outpatient, treatment for substance abuse should address both addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

  • An outpatient appointment is a consultation with a health care provider. That may be a doctor, a nurse, or an addiction treatment professional. An outpatient appointment is usually a face-to-face meeting so that the staff can get a better understanding of a patient’s symptoms. The staff should discuss an anticipated course of treatment with a patient, tell them what is going to happen, and how the treatment will be delivered.

    There are many ways to book an outpatient appointment at a substance abuse facility. This may be through an individual’s GP, by contacting treatment facility staff and asking them to arrange an acceptable date and time. You may also be able to contact them via a text message when you or your loved one are due for an appointment.4

  • There are various outpatient services available at specialized treatment centers. The specific treatment is based on the substance a person is addicted to, the severity of the addiction, and the recovery stage. In general, there are three different types of outpatient programs:5

    • Day programs are the highest level of treatment and structure offered in an outpatient setting. In day programs, people with substance issues commit themselves to attending counseling sessions for several hours per day, five to seven days a week. These programs require a great deal of dedication, which might affect the availability of a person to work or go to school.
    • The intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides a treatment plan with specified and measurable goals that signify improvement. The time needed to participate in therapies is shortened when a patient reaches each goal. This type of outpatient treatment for substance abuse is more appropriate for people who want to recover from substance abuse, but also want more free time so that they can go to work or do everyday activities.
    • Continuing care includes groups such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, which help facilitate a successful recovery. Usually, the groups are led by a licensed therapist and sessions occur weekly. To make it easier for individuals to feel comfortable, trust the process, and be more able to exchange experiences and learn from others, some continuing care groups are age-specific or gender-specific.

  • Every person is unique and when deciding whether to undergo outpatient treatment for alcohol or drug abuse, it is important to assess your or your loved one’s situation and be truthful with yourself. Some individuals benefit immensely from outpatient programs, while others might find them to be less intensive or structured, so they may benefit less from them than inpatient treatments.

    In general, outpatient programs work best for those whose substance abuse issues are mild to moderate. Also, people who have a strong support system at home and good mental health outside of addiction are more likely to benefit from this type of treatment.

  • With a wide variety of substance abuse treatment services available, it is important to know what outpatient treatment for substance abuse is, what to look for in a program, and which questions to ask. You should also take into account what your or your loved one’s specific needs are and what program can address them best. Some of the important factors to consider before joining outpatient treatment are:

    • Program accreditation.
    • Quality.
    • Expense.
    • Insurance acceptance.
    • Education and expertise of staff members.
    • Customer success rates.
    • What complementary services are provided.

    Some of these factors might be more important to consider than others, depending on patients’ particular needs. For those seeking treatment for substance abuse, it is essential to find a treatment facility that meets their physical, mental, and emotional needs.



1. Ksir, O., Ray, C. (2002). Drugs, society, and human behavior (9th ed.). Boston. McGraw-Hill.

2. American Psychiatric Association. (2020). What Is a Substance Use Disorder?

3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018).Types of Treatment Programs.

4. The National Health Service. (2021). What Is An Outpatient Appointment?

5. Forcehimes, A.A., Miller, W.R., Zweben, A. (2011). Treating Addiction: A Guide for Professionals.