How to Know Whether You Need Emergency Care or Routine Care

The Differences Between Emergency, Inpatient, and Outpatient Mental Health Care

Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether a mental health situation needs immediate attention. Here’s what you need to know about seeking immediate, emergency care or routine care in a typical outpatient setting.

What to Do if You're in a Mental Health Emergency

A mental health emergency is one where:

If you’re in a mental health emergency, here are some of your options to get help:

If you’re not in crisis, you have the option of either pursuing inpatient care or outpatient care. In these settings, one big question is whether or not you need to be hospitalized. But there’s more to the decision than just that.

Inpatient Care

Inpatient care requires you to stay in a facility (often, but not always, a hospital) overnight. In an inpatient setting, you’re under the 24/7 care of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals in a hospital setting. 

It goes without saying that inpatient care means closer monitoring. In a mental health setting, that generally means being in the psychiatric ward. But it can also mean eating disorder recovery, addiction recovery, or other similar close care.

Inpatient care is most often provided by a hospital or another inpatient facility like a specialized clinic or drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. This allows providers to supply around-the-clock support and constant supervision, which can be beneficial for those needing drug or alcohol treatment or other hands-on care. It can also be an ideal setting to provide comprehensive care for co-occurring mental health conditions, removal from situations, places, or people who may worsen symptoms or trigger a potential relapse, and closely-monitored medication management (if necessary).

Inpatient clinics generally provide individual, group, and/or family therapy onsite as well as access to 12-step programs.

Length of Stay

This varies widely, but most inpatient programs last anywhere from 3-10 days (for most mental health admissions) and 16-28 days (for drug- or alcohol-related stays).

When a patient no longer needs inpatient care, they are discharged from the facility and transitioned into outpatient care for ongoing support. During discharge, medical professionals provide patients with instructions to follow up with certain doctors, take certain prescribed medications, and receive outpatient services if needed.

Outpatient Care

Outpatient care includes virtually all other types of mental health care – situations that don’t require around-the-clock supervision and overnight stays. Patients can go about their regular lives and schedules while pursuing treatment. Appointments are scheduled around patients’ normal work schedules and personal lives. This provides flexibility and quality care. It’s also more affordable, private, and convenient than inpatient care.

Examples of Outpatient Care

  • Therapy appointments (including teletherapy)
  • Group therapy
  • 12-step meetings
  • Mental health counseling
  • Medication management appointments with a psychiatrist

Key Differences Between Outpatient and Inpatient Care

Level of Monitoring

In inpatient care settings, you have access to a medical professional 24/7. In an outpatient setting, you might have access to your providers via portals, email, or messaging, but most of your interactions will take place during brief scheduled visits.

Complexity of Care

Conditions that need inpatient care are more complex or severe than ones that can be treated with outpatient care. Inpatient care provides an ideal setting for tailoring intensive treatments to each individual.


With outpatient care, you’re only paying provider fees and the costs of any tests or treatments. With inpatient care, you’re also paying for a hospital/facility stay, so it tends to be more expensive (depending, of course, on your insurance coverage).

How to Know What Kind of Care You Need

If it’s not an emergency, you generally want to start by getting in touch with a qualified therapist or another outpatient mental health care provider. If they determine you need closer attention, they can refer you to inpatient care options. A licensed medical professional, mental health counselor, or addiction specialist can help assess your needs and find treatment that’s right for you.

However, it can be helpful to think about your situation on your own to see how much support you may need. Articulating your concerns and observations about your thoughts and behavior beforehand will help you more clearly communicate your needs to your provider. This in turn will help your provider know what treatment style will suit you. 


  • Your level of day-to-day functioning
  • What self-care tasks you are (and are not) able to complete
  • How much you’re able to rely on the help of friends, family, and other support systems
  • Whether you have healthy coping mechanisms or adequate support
  • The severity of your symptoms
  • The complexity of your situation, which can include your trauma background or additional diagnoses
  • The level of risk behavior – are you a danger to yourself or others? Is that danger immediate or long-term?

By identifying where you fall in the wide spectrum of mental health support needs, you’ll have an easier time finding the help that matches your situation.

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