Home Curiosity Is Residential Treatment the Same as Going to the Psych Ward?

Is Residential Treatment the Same as Going to the Psych Ward?

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Recognition of psychological health issues has become much more prevalent in today’s society. However, there is still stigma and taboo associated with having a mental illness, even though a quarter of all Americans live with some mental health condition. The stigma intensifies when—shockingly—struggling individuals seek help for their mental health predispositions, compulsions, or behaviors.

If your teen is struggling, you may wonder what the best course of treatment is for them and what different treatment options entail. We’ll explain the critical differences between residential treatment centers, such as Polaris Teen Center for mental health, and a traditional psych ward to inform your decisions moving forward.

What Are the Key Differences Between Residential Treatment and the Psych Ward?

Both psych wards and residential treatment specialize in mental health issues, from mild to severe. Generally, both provide a range of treatment options, but there are some key differences.


The first and most readily recognizable distinction between the two is that residential treatment exclusively occurs at a residential treatment center. In this retreat-style location, inpatients can be monitored and go through a routine of therapy, treatment, and activity geared toward recovery. By contrast, psych ward care occurs in a psychiatric hospital specializing in mental illness; it may also be inside a general hospital.

Psych wards offer both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, wherein the patient may stay at the hospital (inpatient) or go to day-treatment programs, driving or having someone take them to the hospital from home (outpatient).

Treatment centers determine treatment approaches on a case-by-case basis; psych wards provide intensive care for patients whose needs require more intensive options than outpatient treatment programs can provide. Heavily supervised, these wards afford the patients round-the-clock care and observation.


Another key difference between residential treatment and psych wards is the admission standard. Residential treatment centers are for both youth and adults and allow individuals, couples, or families to spend time away from home engaging in intensive therapeutic recovery. 

The success of residential treatment relies on the ‘getaway’ aspect, at least in part. By removing themselves from harmful situations and relationships, individuals can focus on their sense of well-being and interpersonal growth.

By contrast, psych ward patients don’t usually have a choice in the matter; they are involuntarily admitted to the ward because they pose a danger to themselves or others. In some cases, however, patients who recognize the threat they pose may admit themselves to a psych ward. 

Patients aren’t allowed to leave on their own and may be kept in specialized rooms or given specialized equipment so that they cannot harm themselves or others. Residential treatment patients are asked not to leave at risk of being discharged, but such rules do not generally result in enforcement through physical restraint.

In rare cases, psych ward patients may be handcuffed or physically or chemically restrained to keep them from harming themselves or others. A person may be admitted to a psych ward against their will for the following:

  • Suicidal ideations
  • Threats of harm or evidence of harm to self or others
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Difficulty coping with one’s environment
  • Intense distress or anxiety

Certain mental illnesses that treatment providers can’t treat effectively in an outpatient setting might serve as grounds for admission; in some cases, psych wards may be alternatives to jail time for repeat offenders whose infractions relate to their mental health condition.

Unlike a residential treatment center, from which residents can usually remove themselves or leave when the program is over, psych ward patients cannot leave by themselves—only when a psychiatric evaluation suggests that they are no longer a threat to themselves or others. 


At a residential treatment center, residents participate in therapy specialized to meet their individual needs. Talk therapy and group therapy, for example, help them to process their emotions, validate them, and, over time, redirect negative thought patterns into positive ones.

Alternative therapy methods may be used, too, such as equine therapy, an animal-assisted therapy approach where residents care for horses during their stay.

Psychiatric wards, by contrast, aren’t as pleasant. While the goal of a psychiatric ward is for patients to recover, parts of the process might not be as enjoyable. Patients may be more reluctant to receive treatment and sometimes need some form of restraint at times throughout their stay. 

Psych wards also incorporate medicinal treatment, whereas residential treatment centers may not to the same extent. Both offer constant support for their residents, and both have resources for individualized treatment.


As you’re probably starting to gather, residential treatment centers are more appealing than psychiatric wards primarily due to the environment. A treatment center offers a retreat-style approach that blends physical activity and enjoyable events with therapeutic treatments. 

The former is just as important as the latter; many people enjoy retreats to escape the stress of everyday life, and the environment is a significant factor in the recovery process, allowing patients the focus and introspection to readjust their own thought patterns.

Psych wards are more functional, prioritizing safety over comfort. Patients may have limited activities to avoid the risk of harm, and they may be closely monitored during daily activities.(1)


Finally, residential treatment centers are for patients with varying degrees of severity, with the general understanding that the patient can adhere to the rule of the treatment center and, hopefully, engage with the therapy provided. Residential treatment center patients are obligated to attend sessions, avoid violence, and not use drugs; breaking these rules will potentially lead to discharge.

Psych ward patients, on the other hand, are often on the extreme end of the spectrum, such that their condition proves dangerous for those around them. As such, someone may admit them to a ward because they would likely be discharged from a residential treatment facility.

The Bottom Line

Both psych wards and residential treatment centers focus on patients struggling to manage mental health issues or substance abuse, but several key differences exist.

Generally, psych ward patients are dangerous to themselves or others and are on the severe end of the spectrum, so they must be monitored and potentially restrained.

Residential treatment center patients are under obligation to follow the rules but, in contrast to psych ward patients, are usually self-admitted and participate in alternative therapeutic activities. (2)