A partial hospital program is intensive, short-term treatment to help adults who are facing mental health challenges and issues that impact their daily lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the need for mental health services, with a record number of Americans reporting increases in mental illness and substance use. Now offered virtually, partial hospital programs are more accessible than ever for those who need help. 

Jon Brett, PhD, is the director of the partial hospital program at Newport Hospital. Dr. Brett explains, “The partial hospital program is a comprehensive outpatient program that offers daily group sessions to promote emotional stabilization, psychiatric medication assessment and care, and meetings with individual therapists.” 

Who can benefit from a partial hospital program?

A partial hospital program is a treatment option for anyone who is struggling with mental health or substance use issues and does not need a residential or inpatient level of care. These individuals might need more than just basic outpatient care, seeing a therapist once a week. 

Mark Zimmerman, MD, is the director of the partial hospital program at Rhode Island Hospital. Dr. Zimmerman says, “The partial hospital program serves patients who are feeling extremely distressed or overwhelmed and are not functioning as they typically would. This includes individuals who are so depressed or anxious, they're unable to go to work or complete their typical responsibilities.” 

To be admitted to the program, a patient must:

  • be experiencing significant impairment in functioning
  • display significant symptoms of psychiatric illness 
  • not be at imminent risk of acting on suicidal or homicidal thoughts
  • be able and willing to seek emergency assistance in the event of a potential crisis outside of program hours
  • be willing and able to participate in group therapy

While length of treatment varies, most partial hospital patients can go from high acute distress and impaired functioning to a significant reduction of symptoms within just a couple of weeks and are soon able to return to work.

Partial hospital program services and treatment options

The program’s curriculum draws from a range of specialized, proven treatment methods for mental health issues that include:

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), including CBT for insomnia
  • Interpersonal psychotherapy 
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

The program also features tailored specialty tracks for individuals with a history of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and those diagnosed with borderline personality and related disorders. There is also a program for substance abuse as well as a young adult track for individuals ages 18 to 25.

What are some of the myths surrounding these mental health treatment and day programs?

Despite existing for over 50 years, many individuals are not aware partial hospital programs, also known as day programs, are available. Dr. Zimmerman says, “When patients hear the term ‘day program’ they may think of almost a babysitting service for individuals with severe and chronic mental illness. On the contrary, this is a program designed for patients who can actively participate in, and benefit from, psychotherapy.”

Dr. Brett says there are also social and cultural biases that may impact one’s willingness to seek mental health care. “It’s important that we emphasize the value of understanding and acknowledging these illnesses and promoting effective treatments for them. It is about transcending the cultural biases that all too often create the guilt and shame that individuals feel when dealing with these illnesses, which can prevent them from asking for much needed treatment.”

Success of partial hospital programs and virtual care 

The success of our program is vital for our patients’ well-being. To measure our program’s success, we offer post treatment satisfaction and improvement outcome surveys. We also invite individuals to comment and offer any feedback they may have about the program so we can best meet our patients’ needs. 

Dr. Brett says, “Measures of satisfaction with our partial hospital program are generally very high. Patients report a reduction in their depression and anxiety symptoms, and other measures of improvement are typically significant among our patients, in a fairly short period of time.” 

A key component of the partial hospital program is a group-based curriculum. In the era of COVID-19, it was particularly difficult to hold in-person meetings. That prompted a transition to virtual care, which has been a resounding success. Virtual programs allow some individuals to participate who otherwise could not because of transportation obstacles, medical health reasons, or even psychiatric health reasons. 

It is gratifying to see that 95 percent of patients who complete the program indicate they would recommend it to a family member or friend in need. “We found that our patients’ ability to acquire coping skills, deal with stress, and increase positive mental health factors, such as optimism, energy, and vigor were the same for the virtual program as for the in-person. In addition, reduction in symptoms and improvement in functioning were the same for patients treated in person or virtually,” said Dr. Zimmerman.

If you are experiencing issues with your mental health, the Lifespan partial hospital program may be right for you. Learn more here

Jon Brett, PhD and Mark Zimmerman, MD

Dr. Jon Brett is a clinical psychologist at the Partial Hospitalization Program at Newport Hospital.

Dr. Mark Zimmerman is a psychiatrist and director of the Adult Partial Hospital Program and outpatient psychiatry at Rhode Island and The Miriam hospitals.