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Terminology Guide: Teen Inpatient Treatment

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

What’s the Difference Between Inpatient Treatment and Outpatient Treatment?

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If your child or teen has a severe mental health, behavioral, or alcohol/substance use disorder, they may receive a referral for inpatient treatment.

The easiest way to understand the difference between inpatient treatment and outpatient treatment is that a teen in inpatient treatment lives at the treatment facility and receives around the clock support and supervision, whereas a teen in outpatient treatment lives at home and participates in treatment on a schedule determined by their treatment team and outlined in their treatment plan.

It’s also important to know that there are two types of inpatient treatment: inpatient psychiatric hospitalization and inpatient residential treatment. The latter – inpatient residential treatment – is most often called residential treatment. The former – inpatient psychiatric hospitalization – is completely different than residential treatment: it’s more intensive, more immersive, and is reserved for teens in crisis.

How a Mental Health Professional Decides Which Type of Inpatient Treatment Your Teen Needs

A referring psychiatrist, therapist, counselor, or physician considers two critical factors when making a recommendation about which type of inpatient treatment your teen needs:

  1. The level of severity of the disorder. In clinical terms, this is called the level of acuity, where acuity means how immediately dangerous, serious, or disruptive the disorder is at the time of assessment or diagnosis. Clinicians classify most mental health or addiction disorders as mild, moderate, and severe. The higher the level of acuity, the more intensive/immersive level of treatment your teen will need.
  2. Treatment history. A teen with a mental health or addiction disorder who has participated in treatment – without success – at a less immersive level of care, such as outpatient treatment, may receive a referral for a more immersive level of care, such as residential treatment or inpatient treatment.

Inpatient Treatment for Teens: 24/7 Support, Monitoring, and Care

Here’s a description of these two most common forms of inpatient treatment for teens:

Inpatient Psychiatric Hospitalization

If your teen receives a referral for inpatient psychiatric hospitalization, it means they’re in active crisis. The symptoms of their disorder cause behavior that presents an imminent danger to themselves or others.

Teens receive this level of care in a specialized treatment facility such as a general hospital, a children’s psychiatric hospital, or a general psychiatric treatment center. They live on-site and receive medical and psychiatric treatment and support 24-7. This is the most immersive and intensive level of treatment available. The primary goals of psychiatric hospitalization are stabilization and safety. Therapy comes after a teen or child is safe and stable, as determined by medical staff. When your teen is stable and safe enough to engage in treatments like psychotherapy, they typically move to the next less immersive level of care, which is residential treatment.

Inpatient Residential Treatment

If your teen receives a referral for residential treatment, it means the symptoms of their disorder are so severe they prevent them from living at home, going to school, participating in extracurricular activities, and engaging in the typical activities associated with family and social life.

Mental health professionals provide this level of care in specialized residential treatment centers known as RTCs. In RTCs, children and adolescents live on-site and receive treatment and support 24-7. These children or teens are stable enough that they’re not an imminent danger to themselves or others. They’ve learned to manage their symptoms well enough to allow them to begin therapy, counseling, and participate in other modes of support.

Is Inpatient Treatment for Mental Health Treatment or for Drug Rehab?

Inpatient treatment may be appropriate for mental health issues, for drug/alcohol addiction issues, or both.

During a crisis, mental health symptoms can cause violent behavior, suicidality, or escalating risky behavior. Likewise, an addiction crisis can cause escalating risky, violent behavior, or suicidality.

Therefore, a mental health crisis and/or an addiction crisis may require inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. However, if your teen is not in active crisis, a severe mental health disorder or severe addiction problem may require residential treatment.

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