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Patient weighing the options of inpatient vs residential mental health treatment.

Inpatient vs Residential Treatment

When is a person interned in an inpatient facility? When are they entered into residential treatment? Are the two one and the same? Or is there a significant difference? Whether you are a friend, a family member, a close loved one, or a caretaker, knowing the difference can be crucial – especially if your loved one is slated to be in treatment soon. 

To understand the difference, we must first address that mental health treatment in general comes in different levels of care. These levels of care determine the kind of treatment a person will receive. To put it simply, their level of care corresponds to their psychiatric and interpersonal needs. 

Levels of care in mental health treatment are distinguished not only by different programs and treatments, but by different facilities, different staff, and even different settings. Comparing residential vs inpatient mental health treatment reveals two related, albeit separate levels of care. 

Inpatient vs Residential Mental Health Treatment: The Basics

Inpatient mental health treatment refers to any mental health program that requires a person to be interned in a facility throughout the duration of their care. 

However, most of the time, people who refer to inpatient mental health treatment will mean acute or intensive inpatient care, which is often offered at a psychiatric hospital or specialized facility, staffed with physicians and nurses. 

Residential mental health treatment is another form of inpatient care. However, instead of a clinical setting – such as a university hospital or a specialized practice – residential mental health treatment facilities are homes and houses, apartment buildings, or even villas. 

These are special compounds or areas within regular everyday residential settings specialized to provide room and board for multiple tenants and specialized staff. While mental health treatment is still the focus of a residential setting, it is also meant for much longer-term treatments than a typical clinical inpatient setting, such as a psychiatric hospital. 


Inpatient Mental Health Treatment

Acute inpatient treatment, or acute inpatient hospitalization, may be necessary whenever a person is being: 

  • An active harm to themselves or others.
  • Are suffering from extreme psychiatric or mental distress.
  • Require close observation to avoid self-harm.
  • May need immediate treatment as well as physical hospitalization due to injury or self-harm.


Other forms of inpatient treatment may be recommended in less severe cases, where an individual’s symptoms and immediate history still suggest that it may be a good idea to keep them under observation by a psychiatric professional and assorted staff, for their own wellbeing. Examples of conditions that may require psychiatric hospitalization and a short-term inpatient treatment program include:

Because many people interned at an inpatient facility may be brought there against their own will, these places tend to have good security. Inpatient facilities and psychiatric hospitals are almost entirely composed of clinical staff. 

Furthermore, people who are brought to a psychiatric hospital almost always only undergo short-term treatment. These programs are often no longer than a week, if not two weeks. Some people can go home after just a few days under observation, to ensure that their symptoms are not continuing. 


Residential Mental Health Treatment 

Residential treatment facilities are usually brought up in combination with substance use disorder, or drug addiction, as well as other forms of behavioral addiction. However, residential treatment may also be considered in cases of other mental health issues, including severe OCD, trauma disorders, personality disorders, and mood disorders. 

Most people in a residential treatment facility are there of their own accord. Sometimes, a court may order a person to attend rehab, or if they are a minor, they may be brought into rehab by their parents against their will. 

Residential treatment programs are much longer than intensive or acute inpatient treatment. Individuals who attend a residential treatment program will usually remain at the facility or compound for a minimum of 30 days. Some programs require a minimum stay. Others limit each individual’s treatment, while others yet have no limits on how long people are allowed to stay. 

Some residential treatment facilities are seasonal. They are only open a few months out of the year. Others offer year-long service. In addition to being a step down in intensity, residential treatment facilities are much less clinical, and focus far more on holistic care, prioritizing community involvement and the use of coping mechanisms. 

Many residential treatment facilities also promote extended care programs, which are a step down from a typical residential program, and are designed as transitional programs to help individuals return to normal living after long-term mental healthcare. 


Inpatient vs Outpatient Mental Health Treatment

While both acute or intensive inpatient treatment programs and residential treatment programs are a form of inpatient treatment, there are other levels of care. Most levels of care can be split between inpatient and outpatient care. 

Whereas inpatient care requires that a person lives in their respective treatment setting, outpatient care means that a person comes in for their treatment, be that receiving their prescribed medication from a physician, or regular therapy sessions, experiential therapy, and much more. 

Just like inpatient care involves different levels of treatment for varying intensities, outpatient care can be divided into different levels of treatment as well. Common forms of outpatient care include: 

  • Intensive outpatient care, which involves a long-term commitment to a structured treatment program that may require a person to visit a treatment facility multiple times per week. 
  • Partial hospitalization, which involves a short-term schedule of intensive outpatient activities, often requiring a person to come and attend treatment most hours out of the day, most days of the week, for a week or two. This is more akin to an in-depth accelerated learning program course than a drawn-out semester. 


What Type of Mental Health Treatment Do I Need? 

A mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or therapist, or your primary care physician, will be able to recommend the kind of treatment that you might need given your medical history, previous experience with mental health treatments, and current symptoms. 

In general, life-threatening mental health symptoms may require a short-term stay at a psychiatric facility. If a person requires professional help to regain control of their life, they may be given a choice between intensive outpatient care and residential care. If they need intensive help to avoid or return to normal day-to-day living after a relapse in symptoms, they may consider seeking a partial hospitalization program. 

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