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What Is Residential Treatment?

Just like medical treatment for a serious health condition, the two main types of addiction treatment programs are residential and outpatient. And just like a serious medical condition, the decision to go with one or the other depends on your specific needs and preferences.

A residential setting is much like being checked in at a hospital. You have a team of healthcare professionals monitoring you and giving you support throughout the detoxification process. In some cases, this is necessary because removing a substance that your vital organs have become used to functioning with can be dangerous, so you need to be carefully monitored. The medical team can also give use non-habit-forming medications to ease you through the symptoms of withdrawal. Once your body is free from the substances that caused the dependency, you may feel more comfortable receiving treatment on an outpatient basis, so that you can live at home in familiar surroundings. If you have an effective support system there and your condition is or isn’t severe enough to require residential care, outpatient therapy may be the answer for you.

Why Choose Residential Treatment?

However, if your home life is one of the issues that caused substance dependency in the first place, residential treatment can offer a substance-free place to reset your life away from influences that might pull you back into dependency. Recovery is not just about detox — that’s simply the first step. Learning new skills that will keep you in recovery for life and breaking from past issues is a huge factor in your success. Sometimes it’s helpful to spend time in a new setting while building those skills into your lifestyle. Being away for a time may also give you a new perspective on your environment, and who you are both in it and away from it. In other cases, a higher level of care is required, making residential treatment the only option.

Most residential facilities strive for a home-like feel while providing some benefits similar to a hospital setting. They filter visitors and visiting times to enhance your rest and recovery like a hospital does. They also take care of providing healthy meals and housekeeping so you can feel your best and focus on recovery activities. You don’t have to arrange transportation to get to appointments and therapeutic activities.1 You never have to feel like you are imposing on family or friends for support when you have a need because staff are on hand 24-7 to help. If you have other medical issues or mental health needs along with addiction, doctors and counselors are there to observe, diagnose and treat those as well.2

Residential vs. Outpatient

In either type of treatment, you will benefit from group support, expert advice and counseling, health monitoring, and therapeutic activities such as sports, meditation and group interaction. Residential treatment has a more structured schedule 24 hours a day while outpatient programs may meet for half days and only on weekdays or for several hours a few days a week. If you need to be home for family and job responsibilities, outpatient may be the best fit, allowing you to get help while also continuing to maintain responsibilities at home or work. But no matter which type of treatment you choose, this is a time to focus on your recovery as much as possible. It is not selfish to take time out to do this because you will be better at your job and in your role as a family member in the long run. Sometimes you have to invest in yourself before you have the resources to give to others.

One misconception about residential programs is that you are “locked up” and forced to cooperate with treatment, but all of the activities depend on your willingness to participate and to stay. Most programs have an open-door policy that allows participants to leave at any time. Meanwhile, a misconception about outpatient treatment is that you are completely free to come and go as you wish, but it actually requires that you attend appointments and therapy to stay in the program. Both programs have rules you agree to follow. Growing in the area of personal accountability is a goal at both types of treatment facilities, as well as treating both social and psychological issues.4

It Isn’t Always Either/Or

You may end up deciding to use both residential and outpatient treatment during your recovery. When working to overcome addiction, you can’t have too much help. Many people start in residential treatment then “step down” to an outpatient program as they progress. You may also choose recovery housing, which is short-term housing to help with the transition to everyday life. They offer programs on how to manage finances or find and keep a job, and will connect you to support services nearby.3  These programs can help ease you back into everyday life, allowing you to practice the new life skills you’ve learned while still surrounded with support.


  1. Editors. “Treatment Approaches for Drug Addiction.” Drugabuse.gov, July 2016.
  2. Editors. “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition).” Drugabuse.gov, December 2012.

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