A lot of people with mental health issues use intensive outpatient programs as a way to bridge going from being inpatient (whether voluntary or involuntary) back to their normal lives.
While I was in the hospital, my family and I decided this would be the best option for me, and I just recently finished it.
I think it is important for me to share the pros and cons of a mental health intensive outpatient program while it’s still fresh on my mind. Hopefully, this testimony may help you make the decision on whether or not it’s right for you.
The information in this post is my personal experience and should not be taken as medical advice. I earn commission through my links. Please read the full disclosure for more info.
What is a Mental Health Intensive Outpatient Program?
I had no clue when I was first going into it but most Intensive Outpatient Programs involve two areas of treatment: closely watched medication management and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I will speak about both.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT is a form of talk therapy that takes a specific mental health problem, anxiety, for example, and provides ways to challenge it and find solutions.
In my program, I saw the therapist in a group setting 3 days a week for 3 hours. For most people, the program lasts 6 weeks to 4 months. The length of time depends on your progress and if you feel ready to be discharged.
We were given a binder which got quickly filled up with lots of worksheets.
Some of the handouts contained surveys to see how healthy your relationships, thoughts, boundaries, etc are. Others contained tips for things like building happiness, challenging limiting beliefs, and reducing guilt.
Overall I found the group therapy setting to be a very positive experience.
The last year of living with Bipolar Disorder has been very challenging and isolating. Being in a group with others who deal with some level of mental health challenge was extremely comforting because I got to hear about their experiences and know I am not the only person in the world struggling.
You may think that 3 hours of therapy would drag on and get boring, but it actually went by pretty quickly.
During the first hour, everyone in the group did a short check-in with the therapist to tell her how we are feeling, what is going well, and what is challenging us. Sometimes patients in the group would offer words of encouragement after listening which was really nice.
We got 10-minute breaks in between every hour so it was really only 50 minutes of sitting.
The other two hours were dedicated to learning tools in regard to some topics.
If you are averse to taking medication then a Behavioral Health Intensive Outpatient Program won’t likely be a good option until you can accept taking meds.
In my program, I met with the psychiatrist on a weekly basis at first while he adjusted some of my meds.
Then I saw him every two weeks. When problems came up, the staff was able to quickly get a hold of the doctor and he would call me the same day.
Psych meds are very difficult to take. They come with a lot of side effects and sometimes need to have the doses continuously increased to get a therapeutic effect.
I experienced a lot of side effects when I first started on my Bipolar meds. Some of them were pretty miserable to the point where I wanted to give up.
Unfortunately, that really isn’t an option for me right now so when I was struggling in between appointments, I was able to tell the staff and I quickly got a call back from the doctor.
I read that it can take weeks to even a few months for your body to adjust to psych meds. If you can power through, then you can get to an equilibrium and it isn’t as bad.
It is nice to be able to work much closer with a psychiatrist while you are going through this transition, which you wouldn’t be able to do as easily with simple office visits.
This is another reason that an IOP can be a good option before cutting yourself loose again in the big world.
Cons of Mental Health Intensive Outpatient Programs
It seems the greater medical community views mental health problems as a disease that can really only be bandaged up with medication.
I find it really hard to subscribe to the notion that I suddenly developed this disease and that nothing can be done about it other than meds.
I like to think of every symptom as a warning sign of something deeper going on inside.
Right after I had my second son, I developed food allergies and a diffuse rash that lasted a really long time.
The mental health stuff really didn’t come along until he was a year old after I started closely following geopolitics and going down conspiracy theory rabbit holes.
I know now that the buildup of stress from these activities, plus moving to a new area and my husband being gone, really exacerbated my first bought of psychosis.
I am unable to eat a lot of foods due to my allergies and have struggled with gut health for a while now.
I can’t help but wonder if there is some kind of metabolic insufficiency going on that I haven’t figured out yet.
The IOP sole focus is on meds and therapy, but it does nothing to address other things that could be the root cause of a mental health illness.
The gut-brain connection could be the culprit of why so many people are developing these mental health issues. Perhaps if through testing, proper supplementation, and diet, we could fix the gut, we could fix the brain.
That is why I am so happy to announce that I am going to be working with a functional psychiatrist out of Nashville, Tn soon.
I cannot be more excited to start looking deeper into my physiology and try and fix this problem once and for all.
I plan to write about that experience too because it is not covered by insurance. It is a pain to seek help, pay out of pocket for it, and then wind up with less-than-average results.
I am not going to get my hopes up too much, but perhaps this version of psychiatry will fill in the gaps so that I can eventually manage this disease in a more natural way.
Overall the Behavioral Health Intensive Outpatient Program was a very positive experience.
I was able to finish in just under 2 months because I put a lot of effort into participating and forced myself to stay positive by doing things like gratitude journaling and exercising on the side.
If you are someone that feels alone in your mental health struggles, I highly recommend going to group therapy. I was nervous at first but it ended up being really great.
If you want to learn some really great life tools, along with the fact that you get close access to a psychiatrist, I think IOP are definitely worth the time if you can spare it.