A financial guide to mental health therapy

Written by Nicole Dieker for

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:

Use insurance

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.

Pay out-of-pocket

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 consu