Skip to main content

Running a practice

Urgent vs. emergent: Understanding the difference

The words "urgent" and "emergent" on a watercolor background

It’s your role as a mental health clinician to determine when and how to best support your clients — and when it’s appropriate to refer someone to a higher level of care.

Mental health, as you already know, is a journey. At times, a client’s mental health condition may be stable, which means you can maintain your typical therapy routine (or even consider discharging them). Other times, you may work with someone who has a more urgent need for support, or perhaps someone who’s dealing with an emergency that needs action as soon as possible.

It’s your role as a mental health clinician to determine when and how to best support your clients — and when it’s appropriate to refer someone to a higher level of care. But in the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to determine how to handle these pressing concerns. 

Below, learn more about the difference between urgent and emergent when it comes to mental health care and therapy.

Urgent needs and care

Urgent needs can typically be addressed and treated within 24-48 hours. Typically, urgent needs involve an increase in debilitating symptoms that are distressing but not endangering the client’s immediate safety.

You may schedule an appointment with a client who has an urgent need. In some cases, you may refer these clients to an intensive outpatient program (IOP) or partial hospitalization program (PHP), which are designed to support clients experiencing urgent (but non-emergent) mental and behavioral health concerns. 

Until their needs are met and the symptoms resolve, these clients should be aware of crisis resources and when to call 911 or go to the emergency department for immediate care.

Emergent needs and care

Clients with emergent needs are typically clients in crisis, such as those at risk of harming themselves or another person, or a client experiencing domestic violence or a substance use crisis.

Due to safety concerns, these clients should be seen immediately at a crisis center or in the emergency department. You can offer interim support, but you should also be aware of how to connect clients with the resources they need for their own safety. 

It’s important to note that urgent and emergent care shouldn’t replace ongoing psychotherapy. Once the immediate need is resolved and the client returns to a baseline you can treat, you can continue seeing them to prevent future emergencies and provide resources for your client to cope if they do arise.

Headway is a free service that makes it easier and more profitable for therapists and psychiatrists to accept insurance.