What is the Difference Between Inpatient Vs Outpatient Mental Health Treatment?

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Deciding to get care for your mental health can be one of the most important decisions you ever make—and it could even save your life. Around 1 in 5 adults in the US experience some form of mental illness, yet only 47.2% of all adults with a mental illness received treatment in 2021. Furthermore, up to 90% of people who die by suicide may have experienced the symptoms of a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).[1] These numbers highlight the importance of providing accessible care and educating on the different types of programs available. Today, Clear will examine the primary differences between inpatient vs outpatient mental health treatment, along with reinforcing the benefits of ongoing care to help you live a safe, fulfilling, and supportive life.

Because everyone is unique—including the uniqueness of any mental health concerns you may be experiencing—it’s important to distinguish between inpatient and outpatient care when considering your mental health treatment options, allowing you to more fully consider what level of care will best suit your needs.

What is Inpatient Mental Health Care?

Inpatient mental health care refers to mental health services provided within a residential setting where you stay overnight in the mental health facility.[2] This type of care is generally recommended for individuals who require more intensive and structured support due to the severity of their current mental health symptoms.

Some inpatient treatment takes place in a psychiatric hospital or hospital-like setting, whereas other inpatient facilities are free-standing and offer a more specialized and focused environment for comprehensive treatment.

Key features of inpatient programs can include:

  • 24/7 supervision: Patients receive round-the-clock supervision and care from a team of mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, and other support staff.
  • A structured environment: Inpatient facilities provide a highly structured environment with scheduled activities, therapy sessions, and daily routines to help patients stabilize and manage their symptoms.
  • Crisis intervention: Inpatient care is suitable for individuals experiencing acute psychiatric crises or those at risk of harming themselves or others.
  • A collaborative approach: Inpatient mental health care often involves a multidisciplinary approach, with different professionals collaborating to provide comprehensive and personalized treatment.

The total duration of inpatient mental health care varies based on your specific needs and progress. After stabilization, individuals may transition to less intensive levels of care, such as outpatient care.

What is Outpatient Mental Health Care?

Outpatient mental health care, on the other hand, refers to mental health services provided to individuals who do not require 24/7 supervision and can receive treatment while living on their own.[3] Unlike inpatient care, intensive outpatient treatment typically allows you to attend mental health services on a scheduled basis before returning to your regular daily activities.

Outpatient mental health services can take place in a wide variety of settings, including clinics, medical offices, community health centers, and virtual platforms. Some people may access outpatient mental health care as their first treatment setting, whereas others may step down to outpatient after completing inpatient care.

Key features of outpatient mental health care can include:

  • Flexibility: Outpatient care offers greater flexibility as individuals can schedule appointments around their daily routines, such as work or school commitments.
  • A less-intensive structure: Compared to inpatient care, an outpatient treatment program is less intensive and does not involve round-the-clock supervision.
  • Support for various concerns: Outpatient mental health care can address a wide range of mental health issues, from mild to moderate conditions. It’s also used for ongoing maintenance and support for individuals who have completed more intensive treatment.
  • Continuity of Care: Outpatient care allows for continuity of care, enabling individuals to maintain their treatment plans over an extended period.

Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP)

Within this, outpatient care encompasses many other levels of treatment engagement, offering flexibility and tailored support for individuals with different healthcare needs. Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) provide a more intensive level of care as compared to standard outpatient services.[4] People attending PHP treatment engage in structured sessions during the day but return home in the evenings. This allows them to receive comprehensive treatment while maintaining a degree of independence in their daily lives.

Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP)

In a similar vein, Intensive Outpatient programs (IOP) offer a step-down approach, providing individuals with a moderate level of care above the typical outpatient delivery while allowing them to continue living at home. IOP typically involves a combination of therapy sessions, group therapy or counseling, and educational components, providing a supportive environment for individuals to address their mental health disorders or substance abuse issues several times per week.[5]

Neither inpatient nor outpatient care is a one-size-fits-all approach—both approaches incorporate individualized treatment planning, allowing healthcare providers to tailor interventions to meet your specific needs.

Are There Differences in the Treatments Offered Between Inpatient and Outpatient Care?

For the most part, treatment modalities and offerings are similar between inpatient and outpatient programs—the main difference is within the level of care and structure of the environment.

Which Level of Care is Best For Me?

Deciding between inpatient and outpatient services depends on several factors:

The Severity of Your Symptoms

If your mental health symptoms are severe, or if you are in crisis, an inpatient program may be necessary for immediate stabilization. Outpatient care is often more suitable for people with milder to moderate symptoms who can manage their daily activities and safety.

Potential Safety Concerns

If there are immediate safety concerns, such as suicidal thoughts or behaviors, inpatient care provides a secure and monitored environment in which to heal. Outpatient care may be appropriate if there are no imminent concerns and you can maintain your safety outside of the treatment setting.

Functional Impairment

Consider how much your mental health symptoms impact your ability to function in daily life. If you find it challenging to perform basic tasks, then inpatient care may be necessary. Alternatively, if you can manage daily activities but need additional support, outpatient care may be a suitable option.

Your Treatment History

Your previous experience with mental health treatment can also influence whether inpatient or outpatient treatment would be best for you. If previous outpatient interventions have not been effective, or if your symptoms have worsened, inpatient care may be considered for a more comprehensive engagement with your treatment.

Collaboration With Professionals

Typically, your mental health providers (and/or the facility you are discussing your treatment needs with) will perform a thorough, comprehensive assessment to determine your treatment recommendations. They will also work hand-in-hand to develop a unique treatment plan that best suits your needs, along with collaborating on a plan for long-term care and linkage with any ongoing treatment resources.

The Importance of Ongoing Care

Attending inpatient and outpatient treatment can have a tremendous impact on your overall well-being, with several studies showing that accessing treatment is paramount to the recovery journey. Being able to access ongoing care after your initial phase of treatment is complete is also important, as it works to sustain your progress, prevent relapse, and promote long-term wellness.[6]

Engaging in ongoing care (sometimes called aftercare) has several benefits. Regular mental health check-ins act as a proactive measure, addressing any concerns as they arise and providing you with continuing access to your treatment team to proactively work towards continued stabilization.

Ongoing mental health care also provides you with a consistent and reliable support system. Whether through regular therapy sessions, medication management, or other interventions, you’ll receive continuous support to navigate life’s challenges and stressors. Participation in aftercare can allow you to continually refine the coping skills, resilience, and adaptive strategies learned in inpatient or outpatient treatment, laying the groundwork for long-term emotional well-being and recovery.

Additionally, our mental health needs can change over time. Mental health providers make regular adjustments to your treatment plan, ensuring that you are receiving the appropriate care that you need. Engaging in ongoing mental health care also keeps you connected with a community, helping to reduce feelings of isolation.

Take The Clear Path to Positive Mental Health

Clear Behavioral Health is dedicated to delivering a comprehensive continuum of mental health care that caters to people at different stages of their mental health journey. Our inpatient services allow you to improve your health and wellness in a home-like environment, complete with several onsite comforts and the very best in attentive and evidence-based care. We also offer several outpatient options, including PHP, IOP, and virtual IOP to keep you healthy and attend to your mental health needs, along with teenager-specific programming to better address the specific stressors young people face.

Clear ensures that your progress is maintained by offering many different aftercare, alumni, and ongoing treatment options to stay engaged, making sure that you can stay connected to your providers and feel the support of our treatment community.


  1. National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2023, April). Mental health by the numbers. NAMI; National Alliance on Mental Illness. https://www.nami.org/mhstats on January 15, 2024
  2. Hairston, S. (2022, March 3). How Inpatient Mental Health Treatment Works. OpenCounseling. https://blog.opencounseling.com/inpatient-mental-health-treatment/ on January 15, 2024
  3. Olfson, M., Wang, S., Wall, M., Marcus, S. C., & Blanco, C. (2019). Trends in Serious Psychological Distress and Outpatient Mental Health Care of US Adults. JAMA Psychiatry, 76(2), 152. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.3550 on January 15, 2024
  4. Definition of partial hospitalization. The National Association of Private Psychiatric Hospitals and the American Association for Partial Hospitalization. (1990). The Psychiatric Hospital, 21(2), 89–90. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10106610/ on January 15, 2024
  5. Intensive outpatient therapy: What it is, programs, and more. (2022, April 28). Www.medicalnewstoday.com. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/intensive-outpatient-therapy on January 15, 2024
  6. SAMHSA. (2022, August 19). Mental Health Treatment Works. Www.samhsa.gov. https://www.samhsa.gov/mental-health-treatment-works on January 15, 2024

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