Experts explain how to go through insurance, what to look for, and so much more.

Genesis Rivas
Jun 04, 2021 @ 11:13 am
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Credit: Damircudic, Getty Images

Finding a therapist is difficult. I know because I've been through the process. After I graduated college and lost access to counseling covered through my tuition, the idea of searching for a therapist on my own in the real world was daunting. How do I find someone covered by my insurance? What if they aren't as nice as Dr. K (my previous therapist)? What if I can't find someone soon, and I'll have to endure all of these major life changes without the support—read: college graduation, starting my career, and moving away from home? These were just some of the many questions that crossed my mind.

Finally, after a long process of trial and error, I found a good therapist nearly two years later. One that I feel wholeheartedly comfortable with and has helped me deal with my anxiety. So, if you want to get support but don't know the first step, we're here to help make things just a little bit easier. As a fond believer that mental health services should be easy and accessible to all, I tapped three mental health professionals to learn how to find a therapist. Ahead, learn their best tips including, what to consider, how to deal with insurance, and affordable alternatives.

How to find a therapist:

1. Acknowledge when is a good time to start therapy.

According to Dr. Therese Mascardo, clinical psychologist and founder of @Exploring.Therapy, "The best time to look for a therapist is yesterday, and the second best time to look for a therapist is now." While many people believe therapy is only helpful during moments of struggle and significant life changes, everyone can benefit from speaking with a therapist at any stage in their life, especially as a form of preventative care.

"You don't want to wait until you're desperate to see someone," says Amy Morin, psychotherapist, and editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind. "It's best to start looking as soon as you think you may want to see someone down the road." Finding a therapist can take a lot of time and trial and error, so it's best to look at your options early.

2. Make a list of what you'd like to discuss in therapy.

Once you've established you want to see a therapist, Dr. Mascardo recommends putting together a small list of what you'd like to discuss and what you may be looking for in a therapist. Do you want to get over your ex? Or learn how to be more self-confident at work? Write these things down. "You may also want to consider factors that impact your comfort level when choosing a therapist, such as their gender, ethnicity, race, age, religious/spiritual background, and areas of expertise," she says.

3. Do your research.

There are many types of therapy. For example, you might have heard of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), psychodynamic psychotherapy, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and more. Sometimes, a therapist will use a blend of these therapeutic approaches while others will stick to one, explains Dr. Parmar. It depends on their credentials and training, which varies per person.

Dr. Parmar says some of the most common titles you'll come across can include psychologist (Ph.D.), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT), certified alcohol and drug counselor, and some other unique options like licensed creative art therapist (LCAT).

When you search for a potential therapist, the types of conditions they treat are usually listed on their online profiles or websites. "Every therapist will have their unique style of approaching the therapy process, which can only be discovered once a patient spends the first few sessions with the therapist," says Dr. Parmar. "It is important that the therapist style matches your preference and expectations from therapy so that you leave the session feeling satisfied about the outcome." So, do your research.

4. Contact your insurance.

Therapy can be expensive. The best way to find a therapist that won't charge a very high amount is by going through your insurance. "Contact your insurance company to learn what therapists they work with within your area [and network]," says Morin. They will typically send you a list of therapists accepting new patients that you can call and set up an appointment with.

5. Ask for a referral.

Another way you can find a therapist is by asking for a referral from your primary care physician. "You could also ask a friend or family for a recommendation," says Morin. "While you might not want to see the same therapist that a friend or close family member sees, their therapist may have a recommendation for you."

6. If you don't have insurance, look for a private therapist.

"You could look for a therapist who accepts private payments," says Morin. Dr. Rashmi Parmar, M.D., a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry, says you can use online resources like Psychology Today to help you find a therapist like this. It's important to note that not going through insurance will up the cost of your treatment.

But, there is a silver lining. "Seeing a therapist without insurance means you're paying more out of pocket, but it also means you have more options of who to work with," says Dr. Mascardo. "Don't lowball your therapy budget because what you're really doing is lowballing yourself."

7. Ask for a sliding scale fee.

If you're on a tight budget, you can also ask a therapist if they offer treatment on a sliding scale—meaning the fee will depend on your income. Dr. Mascardo says the qualifications for receiving a sliding scale fee varies from therapist to therapist, but it is customary to get anywhere from 20 to 40 percent off their regular fee. "I've heard of therapists seeing very financially burdened people for free or for as low as $1 to $5 a session," she writes in her blog.

8. Consider virtual therapy.

Therapists are offering online sessions now more than ever, making the process more accessible, convenient, and affordable. "It gives more access to people in remote or rural areas or those with limited access to transportation," says Dr. Parmar. It also is more flexible in terms of appointments because it takes away that commute time.

9. Try a therapy app.

Similar to virtual therapy, many apps allow you to digitally speak with a licensed therapist or counselor, like Talkspace or BetterHelp. These resources typically have reasonable prices or offer financial assistance, and they allow you to have sessions over text, call, or video chat. 

10. Look for free options.

There are opportunities to receive free therapy. A simple search in Google of the words "free therapy " can get you plenty of results. It might take some time and research, but there are options. For example, NYC Well is a confidential counseling service that offers short-term counseling, crisis and suicide intervention, and peer support from behavioral health professionals via phone, text, and online chat 24/7. All you have to do is reach out to the number 1-888-NYC-WELL to gain access.

Other volunteer-based programs offer online counseling for free such as 7 CupsTherapyAid, or iPrevail. Each program works a little differently, but at the root, they all provide a free safe space to talk to a trained mental health professional who is volunteering their services to those who need a listening ear.

11. Book a free consultation.

Probably one of the most important parts in finding a therapist is booking a free consultation once you've found someone you're interested in working with. "This can give you a chance to get to know how they work and see if it is someone you might feel comfortable speaking with," says Morin. Typically, consultations are a time where the therapist will ask you why you are seeking therapy and they disclose how they will be able to help you. This is your time to ask questions about their availability, therapeutic approach, how you two will work together, and anything else on your mind. Don't be afraid to speak up for yourself.

You can usually tell from that first meeting if the therapist is someone you'll feel comfortable with in the future. It's like any other relationship. If you aren't getting a good vibe, that's valid and might just mean you'll have to keep looking. 

12. Be patient.

"It may take longer than anticipated to find a therapist who is a good fit for you," says Dr. Parmar. "You may have to sort through a few therapists before you decide who can help you the best. It will take some patience to find that person."

Between finding one that's in your price point, one with availability, and one that you feel comfortable with, it's admittedly a long process, but trust us when we say the results will be worth it. So take your time, do your research, ask questions, and pat yourself on the back for taking the first step in prioritizing your mental health and well-being.