How to Get Mental Health Help When You're on a Budget

Some mental health professionals offer a sliding scale when it comes to costs, so be sure to ask your provider if they can better meet your needs.
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Working with a mental health professional can be an enlightening and transformative experience. But the process of finding the right therapist can sometimes be discouraging, especially when it comes to costs.

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Fortunately, there are some modern approaches to seeking support that are less costly than traditional therapy. Here are some facts you should know about meeting with a professional, as well as some affordable steps you can take to improve your mental health and wellbeing.

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Is Therapy Covered by Insurance?

Before you schedule an appointment with a therapist or other mental health provider, it's important to understand the costs associated with the service you're seeking. Before you meet for the actual appointment, be sure to ask the provider or someone in their administrative office about costs. You don't want to feel surprised by a bill after your appointment.

Unfortunately, the majority of mental health professionals do not take health insurance, says Aimee Martinez, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical relations for Wright Institute Los Angeles. The reason for this is multifold, but it often comes down to the fact that most health insurance programs only cover services labeled as a "medical necessity." For this reason, only people with a diagnosed mental health disorder may qualify for coverage.

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While it's very common to seek counseling for reasons beyond a diagnosed disorder, insurance coverage for these services is not as common. Some professionals ​do​ accept insurance, but these appointments can come with their own costs, like long wait times or limitations on the number of sessions provided.

What to Do if Your Provider Accepts Insurance

This may at first seem like a more affordable option, but take extra caution to ensure you're receiving the appropriate care for your mental health needs, Martinez says. If you are dealing with a pressing mental health issue, for example, it may not make sense to wait a long time for an appointment, which is often the case with these types of providers.

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Also, keep in mind that just because the provider accepts insurance doesn't mean your appointments will be inexpensive. Your health insurance may require you to hit a deductible before you can pay a smaller co-pay fee, for example. You may want to call your insurance provider to make sure you fully understand your coverage and what costs you'll be responsible for. And you'll want to ensure your practitioner will be able to schedule you in enough so you have the opportunity to reach your deductible.

What to Do if Your Provider Does Not Accept Insurance

When sessions aren't covered by insurance, therapy tends to cost between $100 and $200 per hour, according to GoodTherapy. While this can be costly, make a point to discuss fees with your therapist and share your concerns. It's possible they'll be able to offer you a plan that fits more comfortably within your budget. Some therapists work with a sliding scale when it comes to costs and individual patients' needs, Martinez says.

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While you might be able to afford a single session, you may be concerned that the cost of several sessions will stretch your wallet too thin. You might consider meeting with the professional one or two times to get a better handle on your mental health, and, during your session, you can ask them for recommendations for less-expensive options that make more sense for your budget.

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How to Find More Affordable Therapy

If you simply can't afford therapy, there are less-conventional ways to seek help from a mental health professional that are often less expensive than the classic armchair therapist.

1. Consider Telehealth

In-person therapy sessions are often more expensive than those conducted virtually or online, per GoodTherapy.

Fortunately, telehealth services are more available than ever because of their rise in popularity during the novel coronavirus pandemic. While telemedicine appointments accounted for just 0.3 percent of outpatient visits in 2019, they made up 24 percent of those visits in 2020, according to a March 2021 report in ​JAMA Network Open​.

Contact your provider to see if they are doing virtual consultations, or visit PsychologyToday for a list of professionals conducting teletherapy.

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2. Use an App or Online Service

When you are feeling low, it may be difficult to recall coping mechanisms and techniques to help you stay grounded, but certain free or low-cost apps that guide you in meditation and other mental health techniques may help. Martinez recommends Headspace and Calm to achieve mindfulness through deep breathing, meditation, music and more.

There are other places that offer these kinds of grounding techniques. In 2019, for example, Pinterest launched a product with Stanford Brainstorm Lab that directs users to wellness activities when they feel anxious, sad or stressed. Nina Vasan, MD, founder and executive director of Stanford Brainstorm Lab and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Stanford Medicine, developed the product to meet people where they are (social media, in this case) and offer mental health "micro treatments" on a platform used by more than 250 million people.

Dr. Vasan is also the chief medical officer of an on-demand therapy platform called Real, which provides low-cost membership (starting at $28 per month) and offers topic-based programs, small group sessions tailored to members' needs and community-wide events. Members can get personalized offerings on topics including anxiety, career stress and more.

"During times of crisis, Real also offers complementary services to the public, called Real to the People, as a timely and modern service when people need it most," says Dr. Vasan. "Most recently, Real offered complementary therapy services to Black womxn, People of Color and allies, in light of the ongoing fight for justice against police brutality and systematic racism against the Black community."

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3. Find a Community Support Group

One-on-one therapy is helpful for many, but group support can also be therapeutic. Connecting with people who are experiencing similar struggles can help you feel less alone and more grounded and understood. Community support groups are often free and led in community centers, churches or even clinics.

If you are a part of a school or academic community, your campus may have community support groups for students and staff. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options to attend support groups, both in-person and online. Here are a few, as recommended by Martinez:

  • Center for Discovery Support Groups:​ Center for Discovery and Discovery Mood & Anxiety is offering free online support groups for anyone who has been affected by an eating disorder or mental health via Zoom.
  • NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness):​ NAMI offers free peer-led support groups around the country for participants to share their experiences and gain support from other attendees. Find a support group near you here.
  • Mental Health America:​ This organization provides a list of support groups and a helpful guide for how to find a support group in your local community.

4. Explore Other Resources

While the recommendations you get from friends or your general practitioner may seem way over your budget, know that not all mental health professionals charge upward of $100 per session. In fact, there are resources specifically developed for people with financial constraints.

Martinez recommends Open Path Collective, an organization with a network of professionals across the U.S. that provides affordable therapy for $30 to $60 per session.

You can also call your state's department of community or public health and ask if they can refer you to a community mental health clinic or other lower-cost service, per GoodTherapy.

Finally, if you live near a college or university that has a mental health care department, call to see if there are any students who will provide free or low-cost counseling to meet their accreditation or licensing requirements.

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