A financial guide to mental health therapy
Written by Nicole Dieker for Creditcards.com.
If you’re thinking about asking a therapist to help you with your mental health, you’re not alone. According to a recent CDC study, 19.2% of adults received some form of mental health treatment in 2019. After the unprecedented stresses of 2020 and 2021, you might be wondering whether talking to a therapist could help you manage your anxiety, sleep better or deal with some of the issues that are keeping you from being your best self.
The good news is that there are plenty of therapists who are trained to help you improve your mental health, build stronger relationships with the people closest to you and strengthen your ability to navigate the stresses of everyday life. Even if you feel like you should be able to manage your personal struggles on your own, a good therapist can offer suggestions and solutions that you might not have considered.
Plus, there are many ways to make therapy affordable – whether you find a sliding-scale therapist, use a tax-advantaged savings account such as an HSA or join a free community group for people dealing with a common life issue.
What about credit cards? Should you put the cost of therapy on credit? It depends. “While credit cards can be a financial tool to help you access the mental health services you need when you need them, debt can be a financial problem,” explains Rod Griffin, senior director of consumer education and advocacy for Experian.
It’s rarely a good idea to solve one problem by creating another. That’s why we’ve put together a financial guide to mental health therapy. Here’s how to find the mental health resources you need without compromising your financial health in the process.
Understanding types and costs of therapy
When most people think of therapy, they probably think of the traditional in-person session – but the modern therapy landscape includes many different ways to access mental health care, including online options. Here’s an overview of today’s mental health resources, including how to access free or low-cost mental health support.
Types of therapists
There are many different types of therapists. Psychologists, for example, generally work with people who are experiencing issues like anxiety. If you visit a psychologist, expect them to use talk-based therapy as a primary tool. Some psychologists may offer behavioral and mental techniques to help you manage your most common stressors.
Psychiatrists, on the other hand, generally work with people who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. In addition to practicing talk-based therapy, psychiatrists often help people manage their mental health with prescription medicine.
You may also decide to visit a counselor who is trained to help people navigate difficult life situations. A marriage counselor might help a couple considering divorce figure out how, or whether, to remain together. A grief counselor might help a person deal with the loss of a close family member or friend.
If you are looking for a therapist in your area, use reputable online tools, such as the American Psychological Association’s Psychologist Locator, to help you find a person who specializes in the type of therapy you’re looking for. You may also want to use your insurance portal to search for therapists who are within your insurance network. Most therapists have websites that explain what types of therapy they practice and many offer free consultations to help you decide whether they might be a good match.
Online vs. in-person sessions
While some people may still prefer in-person therapy, many people are benefitting from the increased availability of online mental health resources. Services like Talkspace and BetterHelp give you the opportunity – and the flexibility – to connect with licensed therapists over text or video chat, often at a significantly lower cost than you might pay for in-person sessions.
If you’re looking for general mental health resources rather than personalized treatment, even more online tools are available. Popular mental health apps like Calm or Headspace offer guided meditations and other stress-management tools. Some mental health apps, such as Woebot, even give you the opportunity to interact with a bot that can offer helpful suggestions that are customized to your needs.
Free or low-cost options
Many people don’t realize that today’s therapy landscape includes a number of free or low-cost options. Community support groups, for example, offer targeted mental health resources for people who are dealing with a specific issue such as grief, illness or addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous is probably the most well-known example, although many other types of support groups are available.
Therapy hotlines are another free option, especially for people who might be experiencing the kind of mental health crisis that needs immediate attention. The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers free phone, text and chat services to people who are in need of mental health support.
In some cases, you can access reduced-cost mental health services by working with a therapist in training. Check with your local university to see if student therapists are available.
Local mental health centers and non-profits might also be able to connect you with low-cost or free mental health care. Some churches also offer mental health services, often in the form of group discussions. You may also be able to speak one-on-one with a minister, rabbi or other religious leader.
Paying for therapy
How much does therapy cost? It depends. Some online therapy programs cost as little as $60 per month, while some in-person therapists charge over $100 per session. Mental health care costs vary by location, by network and by treatment – and if you’re working with a sliding-scale therapist, the cost of therapy may be partly determined by what you can afford.
“We offer sliding scale and work with major insurers to help our patients get access to care when they need it and help as many people as we can,” explains Dr. Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer of JourneyPure, an addiction treatment center.
If you’re considering therapy, it’s worth asking yourself how you’re going to pay for it. Here are your major options, along with a few options you might not be aware of:
Most insurance plans, including all Affordable Care Act Marketplace plans, provide mental health care benefits. If you plan on covering the cost of therapy with insurance, do your research before contacting a therapist. You may need to choose a provider that is within a specific network, for example, or you may be limited to a certain number of sessions or types of treatment.
It’s also important to know exactly what your insurer will cover and what you’ll need to pay out-of-pocket. Will you pay a small copay per therapist visit or will all your therapy costs come out of your deductible before being covered? After you pay your full deductible, will you pay additional coinsurance costs until you hit your out-of-pocket maximum? Health insurance can be confusing, so make sure you understand as much as possible about how your insurer handles the costs of mental health care. That way, there won’t be any unpleasant surprises – or unexpected bills.
Some people choose to cover the cost of therapy out-of-pocket, especially if they are working with a therapist who is outside of their insurance network or who doesn’t accept insurance as a payment method.
If you plan on paying for therapy out-of-pocket, make sure you can afford all the costs. Ask for the rates up-front, before booking an appointment – and ask if your therapist offers sliding-scale pricing based on income. Consider setting up a phone consultation before committing to a therapist long-term and make sure that any therapy plan you choose fits into both your short-term budget and long-term personal and financial goals.
Consider other options to pay for therapy
There are many other ways to cover the cost of therapy – and many people don’t realize just how many options are available to them.
“For patients who are concerned about their ability to afford mental health services, including if their insurance plan does not cover the services they need, they may want to find out if their employer offers an Employee Assistance Program,” explains Wind. “They may provide some benefits to help you afford care.”
Wind also suggests using a Health Savings Account (HSA), to cover the costs of mental health care. “Patients with an HSA may be able to tap into these funds,” Wind told us. “For example, for drug rehab, HSA funds may be used for food, lodging, certain pharmaceuticals if they are needed and transportation to and from 12-Step meetings or therapy sessions.”
You might also be able to use your Flexible Spending Account (FSA) to pay for the cost of therapy. Since FSA money is use-it-or-lose-it each year, putting your FSA savings toward mental health care costs is one good way to ensure you use the funds you’ve set aside.
HSAs and FSAs aren’t the only tax-advantaged accounts that can help cover the cost of therapy. You might also consider setting up an ABLE Account, which is a tax-advantaged savings account that can be used to cover disability-related expenses. “One of the best ways I was able to pay for my out-of-network therapist was using an ABLE account,” shares Sharon Rosenblatt, director of communications at Accessibility Partners. “Not a lot of people know about them since they are typically for adults supporting family members but they are great for individuals.”
If you plan on using an ABLE account to pay for your therapy expenses, you’ll need to prove that your mental health issues qualify as a disability. “With a doctor’s note confirming my mental health disability, I was able to save for and pay for therapy,” says Rosenblatt.
Handling debt and saving on therapy costs
Therapy can be expensive – and the last thing you want, when you’re working on your mental health, is to add a new financial challenge to your life. Here are some suggestions to help you manage the cost of therapy and avoid the kind of financial stress that can derail your progress.
Clear any debt
If you’re looking for ways to make more room in your budget, you’re probably thinking about canceling a few subscription services or cutting a few takeout runs. While those kinds of small wins can save money over time, you’ll save a lot more money by focusing on big wins, like paying off high-interest debt.
Consider using a balance transfer credit card to consolidate your credit card debt into a single monthly payment. The best balance transfer credit cards offer at least a year of 0% intro APR on balance transfers, giving you time to pay off your transferred balances before they start accruing interest. If you are carrying a lot of high-interest credit card debt, transferring that debt to a 0% intro APR balance transfer credit card could save you a lot of money. Use a balance transfer calculator to see the numbers for yourself.
Paying off old debt is the kind of big win that could benefit not only your financial health but also your mental health. “Debt can cause even more mental stress,” explains Wind. Once you start clearing out your debts, you’ll have more room in your budget to cover the cost of therapy – and more room in your life to focus on the benefits that therapy can provide.
Plan for therapy costs
Whether you’re dealing with insurance copays, drawing from a tax-advantaged investment account or paying for your weekly therapy sessions out-of-pocket, taking care of your mental health is probably going to have a price tag attached. That’s why it’s important to plan for your therapy costs in advance – and know which method of paying for therapy is best for your mental and financial health.
This becomes especially important if you’re thinking about putting the cost of therapy on credit.
“One key to using credit wisely is to have a plan for how you will repay the debt,” says Griffin. “If you end up carrying a balance from month to month, you’ll accrue interest fees, which could increase the overall cost of mental health services in the long run.”
While a low-interest credit card or a 0% intro APR credit card could reduce some of the financial burden associated with interest fees, you’ll still want a plan – and a budget – in place to ensure that your balances get paid off on a regular basis. That way, you won’t end up carrying more credit card debt than you can handle.
In some cases, a low-interest personal loan might be a better option than a credit card. “We’ve had patients take out third-party loans to pay for rehab if their credit is good enough and their financial status is healthy,” Wind explains. “This may be an option if delaying treatment is not wise.”
No matter which payment option you choose, make a plan to cover the costs. People who plan ahead are more likely to avoid the financial stresses that can sometimes be associated with mental health care. By reducing the financial stress in advance, you’ll avoid adding unneeded mental stress to your life.
Find ways to reduce therapy costs
If you’ve run the numbers and are worried that therapy might still be too expensive for your budget, look for options that can provide you the mental health support you need without saddling you with bills you can’t afford.
One option, as noted above, is to find a sliding-scale therapist who might be able to offer reduced fees to people with lower incomes or tighter budgets. Another option is to find a therapist that is covered by your insurance or to use a lower-cost online therapy service or app.
If you like your current therapist but are having trouble covering the cost of therapy, consider reducing the frequency of your therapy sessions. Switching from weekly appointments to every other week could cut your therapy costs in half, for example. Let your therapist know that you want to continue working together but would like to find a way to make your treatment fit your budget and see what they suggest as the best option.
You might also want to consider group therapy. In many cases, group therapy sessions are less expensive than individual therapy sessions and group therapy can connect you with other people who may be dealing with similar mental health issues or personal struggles.
There are many ways of accessing the mental health resources you need – and nearly as many ways of covering the costs. Whether you pursue traditional in-person therapy with a psychologist or psychiatrist, use a service like Talkspace to chat with a licensed therapist online or find a free community group that allows you to connect with other people who are going through similar issues, you have options. Whether you cover the cost of therapy with insurance, a savings account or a credit card, you have options.
The one option you should avoid? Putting off getting the mental health care you need to feel and function at your best.
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Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. She spent five years as a writer and editor at The Billfold, a personal finance site where people had honest conversations about money, and she regularly teaches classes on how to build your income as a freelancer.