How to Find Affordable Therapy When You're Broke

Getting professional help doesn't have to cause financial stress.

chaise lounge with a quarter being dropped in the cushion — concept image depicting the high cost of therapy
Photo: Getty Images / Design by Jo Imperio

Friends are great for helping you get through everyday stresses, but sometimes problems and situations need more professional guidance than unloading over wine can offer. However, you're not alone if you think that there's no way to fit regular therapy sessions into a tight budget. That's not entirely true, though — finding affordable therapy is nowhere near impossible.

"People tend to only think of expensive, private therapy, but there are so many options of how to get help when you're struggling with difficult situations and emotions," says Theresa Nguyen, L.C.S.W., chief program officer and vice president of research and innovation at the nonprofit Mental Health America.

It's true, seeing a psychologist can definitely create a black hole in your budget. But there are actually a heckuva lot of affordable therapy options for getting treatment at just $50, $25...even for free. "Money should never be the sole factor keeping someone from getting help," adds Nguyen.

Here, nine ways you can find affordable therapy, so you can talk things through with someone more qualified than your friends.

Call your insurance.

If you have insurance, there's some good news for finding affordable therapy. With the passage of the Mental Health Parity Act in 2008, every insurance plan — including those under the Affordable Care Act — includes mental health coverage, and the cost of a visit should be the same co-pay as your other doctor's appointments, says Nguyen. The only problem: There are fewer therapists in-network than out-of-network, meaning the professionals your insurance will cover may be booked out with patients in your same situation. That said, it's definitely worth calling the providers who only charge that co-pay to see if they have available appointments.

If you're searching for immediate help, it's still a viable option to look at out-of-network clinicians who accept your insurance. You'll have to hit your deductible before your insurance company will start covering anything, and even then, you're probably still fronting close to half the cost. But who knows — that might be enough of a discount to get your bank account on board. If not, there are many more options.

Check out your employee benefits.

Your ticket to affordable therapy might be lurking in your employee benefits options. Many employers offer mental health services to workers, whether it be access to telehealth platforms (more on those in a bit), mental wellness resources, or even a set number of mental health days off per year. Lots of companies also have Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs) that can provide confidential counseling, among other services, at little to no cost to you.

Ask about cash rates.

If you want to see a bona fide therapist ASAP, you're probably looking at a professional who's out of network or who doesn't take insurance at all (which is true for some 30 percent of psychologists). It's definitely worth it to highlight your limited income and ask if they have any more affordable therapy options or alternative payment plans, suggests Nguyen. A lot of offices will discount if you pay in cash, though keep in mind that psychologists set their own rates, she explains. That means if they are in high demand, their cash rate won't necessarily be the cheapest therapy option out there.

Ask about sliding scales.

Another affordable therapy option if you're limited financially is to ask about a sliding scale. Not every therapist has one, but some will charge, say, $20 an hour and offset that with other clients who can pay more, explains Nguyen. You can typically filter for this option when searching for a therapist on a database. If you don't want to or can't put in the legwork of finding someone with a sliding scale on your own, consider joining Open Path Psychotherapy Collective. You pay a one-time subscription fee of $59 to be matched up with a therapist near you who will only charge between $30 and $60 per session.

Look at college services.

If you're in undergrad or grad school, your university likely offers mental health services, and you'd be talking to someone who understands your community and your life, points out Nguyen. And this is an awesome way to get cheap therapy — most of the time, it's completely free.

Work with a pre-licensed professional.

Signing up with someone straight out of school rather than an official L.C.S.W. or Ph.D. may work to your financial advantage. Pre-licensed professionals train under the supervision of a licensed psychologist and may charge less for clients. That doesn't necessarily speak to the quality of their work, adds Nguyen. "Feeling like you can have a rapport with a person is more important than their degree," she says. It's definitely a good affordable therapy option, but you should still do research on this person just as you would anywhere else, notes Nguyen.

Call a warm line.

"A warm line is a completely free, telephone-based way to have a chat with somebody if what you need is two or three conversations but you don't need regular therapy sessions," says Nguyen. The lines are typically run by the local government and manned by people who aren't licensed clinicians but who have had training in essentially how to listen compassionately to help provide clarity. Check out this warm line database or reference the National Alliance on Mental Illness warm line directory to find a local number.

Use a digital therapist.

Technology has made it even easier to find affordable therapy — cheap online therapy is quite easy to come by these days. "The nice thing about a telehealth app is you have much more control over finding someone you like. It can be scary to break up with a therapist face-to-face, but with the apps, you can try out different listeners and therapists and find one that gives you the support you need," adds Nguyen. Plus, they're typically a lot cheaper than in-person therapy.

Digital therapy apps run the gamut of who you can connect with and the type of help you can get. Some, such as Talkspace or BetterHelp, match you with a licensed counselor whom you can text or video chat with any time, any day for a flat monthly rate. Others, such as Happy, are "compassionate listening" services, connecting you with someone who has been trained to lend a sympathetic ear as you pay, typically, by the minute.

Find a digital support group.

Whatever you're struggling with, chances are someone else is going through the same thing. That's the basis of support groups on Facebook and mental health support group apps — all basically modern chatrooms for people struggling with anxiety, body image issues, postpartum depression, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. "There's a little bit of everything for everyone, and suddenly you're connecting with people who really empathize and become a great support system," says Nguyen.

This probably isn't the best affordable therapy option if you need someone to work through a really complex problem with you, but if you have questions you're burning to know but don't necessarily need answered immediately, digital support groups can be great. Plus, they're free!

Opt for group therapy instead of private.

Private or public group therapy is often free, says Nguyen. These are typically peer support groups hosted in a variety of ways — sometimes local mental health organizations will hold group talks that anyone can drop in to, often themed based on issues such as depression or sexual assault; some health care companies will host, say, stress management group talks at your office. Check out your local Mental Health America affiliate, who can direct you to support groups in your area.

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