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Intensive Outpatient Programs versus AA or NA Meetings: What’s the Difference?

therapist leads group sessions at intensive outpatient program

One of the questions we commonly hear in admissions is, “How is an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) different from attending AA meetings?”  Why would I choose IOP over going to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous? There are significant differences between the two styles of sobriety support. An understanding of the differences can help you make the best choice for your situation.

There are similarities between IOP and Meetings-based programs

Both types of programs are based on the 12-step philosophy. Both allow you to remain at home while gaining support for maintaining sobriety.

12-step meetings

12-step meetings, of the many varieties, are established to provide support and suggestions on how to apply the 12-steps to sobriety.  This factor is critical in understanding the difference between IOP and 12-step meetings. 12-step meetings are designed for members to share with one another how they have worked the steps and applied the tools of the program to recovery. This process helps the “newcomers” learn how to overcome obstacles in sobriety. These meetings help people establish new patterns of behavior to work through the various addictions including drug and alcohol dependence, eating disorders, sex addiction, and even gambling, shopping, and codependence. These meetings are not designed to discuss emotions or personal problems. 12-step meetings, including those offered by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, are a solution-focused approach to recovery to share strength and hope amongst members. The meetings also offer a place where people can network with other recovered peers to continue to gain support in between meeting attendance, gain sponsorship, and also provide sponsorship to new members. These meetings tend to be open-ended so an interested person can start at any time. Meetings are operated by 12-step members and do not require particular licenses or credentials, only a desire for sobriety. The goal is common to all members, and the support is critical for anyone suffering from the variety of addiction types.

Intensive Outpatient Programs

IOP shares many of the attributes of 12-step meetings. IOP offers a safe place for people working on their recovery to also connect with other peers in sobriety. However, it also offers a much stronger level of support.  IOP programming can also commence at any time, but unlike 12-step meetings, IOP is time sensitive. Enrollment in programming usually means a minimum of 6-8 week commitment, 3-4 times per week, in order to gain the benefits of the programming. IOP typically has a variety of participants from people that are seeking clinical support. Participants range from those who have just finished residential treatment, to people fresh off of relapse. Some are peers that have been court ordered to seek treatment.  We also see enrollees use IOP as a first line defense when someone wants to engage in treatment but may be reluctant to commit to a residential stay.

A higher level of accountability

Intensive Outpatient Programs provide for a higher level of accountability than 12-step meetings. Participants are required to submit urinalysis samples to increase the safety of the group. Additionally, IOP is designed to provide clinical care for clients that are attempting sobriety while still living within the community/’real life” setting. Facilitators are almost always licensed professionals that are trained in counseling theory, as well as how to treat the disease of addiction. The clinical support provided in IOP is designed to help clients find the awareness and gain the tools to confront trauma, improve emotional management, and identify thinking errors. Clients in an IOP also work to develop new coping skills to improve their chances of sustaining long-term sobriety. Depending on the treatment modalities used, most IOP’s encourage or require attendance in 12-step meetings, acquiring sponsorship, and working through the 12 steps. IOP is designed to raise the level of awareness around what are the potential pitfalls a particular client will face as they work towards lifetime sobriety.

In summary

This article was written to help provide a general comparison of the differences between IOP and 12-step meetings.  For additional information, please feel free to contact our admission line, and an admission specialist can provide more in-depth information on how Arbor Behavioral Healthcare has helped many people better prepare for their journeys of recovery.