January 27, 2020
In recent years the stigma around mental illness, psychiatric help and medication has been examined and questioned more than it might have ever been before. In 2018, 43.3% of adults with mental illness received treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In short: it’s more common than ever for people to seek therapy.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Anyone who goes to therapy can attest that the decision to get help, for whatever reason, is often a difficult one to make. And unfortunately, that difficult decision is only the first in a long line of difficulties people must face in order to end up in a therapist’s office. Issues to navigate may include cost, insurance, accessibility of offices, picking a therapist and scheduling a first appointment.
The first obstacle people think of when it comes to therapy is cost. Sessions can be expensive, ranging from 65 to 250 dollars per hour, according to goodtherapy.org. Luckily, most insurance companies are required not only to cover mental health and substance use disorder services (mentalhealth.gov), but also to “treat mental and behavioral health and substance use disorder coverage equal to (or better than) medical/surgical coverage,” according to the American Psychological Association. Essentially, your insurance legally cannot charge a higher copay for a visit to a mental health professional than for most medical or surgical office appointments.
Additionally, your insurance cannot place a limit on the number of treatments you can go to, according to APA. (There are of course exceptions to these rules–for more information you can look at the APA’s summary of this law.) If you’re unsure of whether or not your insurance covers mental health services, you can call your insurance company or look at your plan’s enrollment materials; under the Affordable Care Act, your health insurer must provide you with a summary of your health benefits, including mental health benefits (mentalhealth.gov).
Once a person knows if their insurance covers mental health services, they have to make sure that the therapist they want to see will take that insurance. But first, they have to make another complex decision; which therapist do they want to see?
Especially for new patients who don’t yet have an official diagnosis, choosing a therapist can be a daunting task. What kind of services do you need? What level of education or training do you want in a therapist? Which offices are accessible to you? There are a lot of questions to ask, and the answers can often be vague.
For MSU students, the Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) located on the third floor of the Olin Health Center offers appointments where they can help you find a therapist outside of the university. In Michigan, the Great Lakes Psychology Group has many locations and their website is very helpful, allowing you to browse therapists and even make your first appointment online.
When choosing a therapist, a good starting point is what offices are close enough for you to visit regularly. A simple Google search of “therapists near (insert town)” will often do the trick. Write down a list of all of the websites you find, scroll through a few reviews if they’re offered and go to the websites. Most office’s websites list their focuses, areas of expertise, and photographs and bios for their therapists. Trust your gut at this stage; if the website gives you a strange feeling or makes you slightly uncomfortable for whatever reason, strike it off the list. Once you have a list of potential places, it’s time to pick up the phone. While some websites have an email or online chat function, you can get your information much faster by calling the front desk, if you’re comfortable with it.
So, you pick up the phone, dial the office, and the receptionist answers. What now? Receptionists are supposed to be helpful, and they very often are, in addition to being patient, polite and kind. Don’t worry about not knowing everything or being new to the process–if you don’t know something, ask.
Start off by letting them know that you’re a new patient looking to get an appointment, and ask if they take your insurance. Not all offices will, so if they don’t then you’re done there–thank the receptionist, tell them to have a nice day and end the call. If they do take your insurance, that’s great! Now you can specify if you know which therapist you want to see or if you would prefer to see a therapist of a specific gender. If they’re available, schedule a first appointment, where you will meet the therapist and have a general discussion about what you hope to get from therapy and what they can provide you with. Then you can decide if you want to keep seeing them or go somewhere else–it’s perfectly normal to try a few therapists before choosing one.
A common issue you might run into during these first calls is “Dr. ____ is not taking new patients at this time.” Don’t despair. Ask when they will be taking new patients, write it down and if you haven’t found someone by that date, call again. This cold-calling process can be tiring, discouraging and time-consuming, so it’s best to find a family member or friend who is supportive, and ask them to hang out with you while you do this. It can really make a difference.
This brings us to what can be the most difficult hurdle: a lack of support. Some people don’t have family or friends (or worse, either) who support mental health treatment, and if that person is on their parent’s insurance, this can seem like an insurmountable roadblock. In situations like this, low-cost counseling might be an option, or you can explain your situation to the front desk and ask about their billing practices; sometimes something can be worked out, sometimes not. But in the end, remember that therapy is for you, for bettering your mental health, and nobody should be allowed to tell you that you can’t better yourself. It may be difficult, but you are more than worth it.
Sydney Wilson is a junior double-majoring in Professional & Public Writing and English. She wants to spend her professional career as an editor, helping authors make their stories the best they can possibly be. Outside of school, she enjoys trail running, reading, listening to music, and watching YouTube tutorials for projects she’ll never do.