Treating Addiction is a Medical Emergency

Drug addiction is a life-threatening condition that should be treated as a medical emergency. Finding the right program when the addict is willing to go can be challenging. Our goal is to empower you to make an informed decision about how to proceed with addiction treatment.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) recognizes five broad levels of care on a continuum of recovery-oriented addiction services.  In what follows, we explain these levels of care in simple terms so you or your loved one can find the most appropriate treatment.

An Overview Of Drug Rehab Treatment Levels

Specialized care is necessary for anyone struggling with addiction. It isn’t just a bad habit; according to the ASAM, “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

Any substance use disorder needs to be evaluated and treated by addiction specialists who have been trained to treat the disease of addiction. That still leaves so many people wondering where to start. Treatment begins by entering into one of five levels of care:  

  • Level .5 – Early Intervention Services
  • Level I – Outpatient Services
  • Level II – Intensive Outpatient Services
  • Level III – Residential Services
  • Level IV – Intensive Inpatient Services

Early Intervention Addresses A Potential Substance Abuse Problem Before It Progresses

Most people do not know that early intervention services exist. Early intervention services address substance misuse such as binge drinking or drug or alcohol experimentation and may help to prevent more severe substance use disorders from developing. The Surgeon General reports that “the goals of early intervention are to reduce the harms associated with substance misuse, to reduce risk behaviors before they lead to injury, to improve health and social function, and to prevent progression…”

Most people do not know that early intervention services exist

Also according to the Surgeon General, early intervention services “consist of screening an individual to determine the extent of drug or alcohol use and providing information about substance use risks… and strategies to quit or cut down on use and use-related risk behaviors.” This can happen in one or two sessions, perhaps in tandem with some other kinds of therapy or support.

Outpatient Services – Getting Treatment Without Packing Your Bags

Outpatient services may be recommended for those who are able to address their addiction without significantly disrupting their lives. This allows people who need recovery to maintain their professional, family, and personal obligations.

Outpatient treatment involves attending group and individual counseling sessions and educational classes several days each week – usually in the evenings. It typically requires a time commitment of nine hours or less every week for 30, 60 or 90 days. Outpatient addiction treatment may include behavioral modification therapy, relapse prevention strategies, education about the disease of addiction, and exposure to other resources in the community. This treatment may be supplemented with individual or group therapy.

Basic outpatient services represent the lowest level of care for someone with a substance abuse problem. While some people can begin their recovery process with such minimal outpatient services, many need more intensive treatment when they begin their recovery. Outpatient services may serve best as “aftercare” following completion of intensive outpatient or inpatient treatment.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment – A Step Up

An Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) requires a greater time commitment than “basic” outpatient treatment, although again most people can manage it without having to sacrifice their other responsibilities. IOP typically involves 12-15 hours a week of group sessions, individual counseling, and educational classes.

Intensive Outpatient Programs are increasingly popular. People appreciate the freedom and flexibility intensive outpatient has to offer because it allows them to continue to work or go to school while receiving enough support to encourage ongoing recovery.

IOP provides structure for time that was previously “high risk” because IOP usually keeps a client in session or in meetings several evenings a week and sometimes on weekends.

It is important to note that detoxification services are not generally offered at this level of addiction treatment. Many who are addicted to alcohol, heroin, prescription opioids and other drugs require a supervised medical detox to safely withdraw from their drug of choice. If you or your loved one needs to undergo a medical detox, you will likely require short-term services of a hospital or other highly structured detox program before beginning outpatient treatment.

Residential Services Offer Full-Time Care In Comfortable Surroundings

When most people think of getting treatment for a substance abuse problem, they typically envision a stay at a residential rehab. Residential services offer round-the-clock inpatient treatment and a safe, structured living environment for the duration of treatment.

Managing cravings, confronting triggers, and overcoming the compulsion to use drugs or alcohol can be overwhelming. Many people need the safe and secure environment offered by residential treatment to get stabilized – at least for the first month. Some stay as long as three months.  

Residential treatment usually happens in comfortable surroundings that feel very much like a home environment. While there is a staff available 24-7 to offer clinical support, a residential rehab does not have the look and feel of a hospital. Unlike outpatient treatment, residential services may offer a medical detox to promote the safe and comfortable withdrawal from addictive substances.

This addiction treatment level not only allows direct access to expert staff, it also provides a supportive peer community of recovering people. This creates an opportunity to forge rich and rewarding relationships centered on recovery.

Intensive Inpatient Services Are For Those Who Require Greater Medical Supervision

Of the five levels of rehabilitation treatment, intensive inpatient services are the most comprehensive and inclusive. They usually take place within a hospital setting or psychiatric unit. Intensive inpatient offers 24-7 medically directed treatment and almost always includes daily meetings with a physician. This level of care is highly recommended for those whose addiction or physical condition requires rigorous monitoring and evaluation.  

Intensive inpatient is also especially helpful for treating someone who is suffering from a dual diagnosis. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), dual diagnosis (also referred to as a co-occurring disorder) is a term used when someone experiences a mental illness and a substance use disorder simultaneously. Those who have a co-occurring disorder require specialized services that treat both addiction and mental health disorders. Medication management services and cognitive or dialectical behavioral therapies as well as addiction treatment may be available here.  

Like ordinary residential treatment, patients who undergo intensive inpatient treatment live at the facility for a period of thirty to ninety days. During intensive inpatient, those receiving treatment participate in peer groups, individual counseling, and classes that offer coping and recovery skills. Intensive inpatient builds a strong foundation for those who have more complex issues that require complicated or focused treatment.

How To Determine What Level Of Care Is Necessary

Often the best level of care for a client is determined at intake, or in a conversation with a professional before one reaches out to a particular treatment center. Finding a clinician, interventionist or rehab that’s right for you – and your insurance – can be a real challenge.

Many rehabilitation facilities will perform a free, confidential evaluation over the phone. This will help you or your loved one determine which level of care is needed. You can start a search on your own with GET HELP to find a treatment center near you so you can complete an assessment.

GET HELP’s free search tool is the easiest way for anyone, anywhere to find addiction treatment fast. You can also download our app, go to, or call us at (323) GET-HELP. There is absolutely no fee. Our only goal at GET HELP is to connect  you with quality substance abuse treatment services so you, your loved one, or your client can find freedom from active addiction.