Tough therapy finances

Students detail how they work around financial troubles when it comes to paying for therapy

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After years of battling and overcoming an eating disorder by herself, senior Sarah* decided that she wanted to seek professional help. She knew the recovery would be hard, but she didn’t expect that finding someone to help her recover would be even harder. 

A year before the pandemic hit, Sarah’s family contacted their insurance company, Anthem, and found a list of therapists. Sarah’s mother called every single one on the list. 

“Half of them did not take [Anthem] anymore or had never taken [Anthem] in the first place, and the other half had all their clients filled and weren’t taking any new clients,” Sarah said. “It was just so hard to find one.” 

After a year had passed, Sarah and her parents tried again, choosing a therapist that didn’t work with insurance. Each session cost the family $250; a quick Google search will show that this was well within the average $150 to $250 price point for South Bay therapists not working with insurance. Sarah only attended three sessions. While her parents never told her the explicit details of their finances, Sarah couldn’t stop thinking about the price tag. 

“I just couldn’t justify spending all that money.” Sarah said. “It was taking a big toll on our finances to spend that much money. My parents were willing to pay, but I think they wouldn’t want me to prolong therapy any longer than necessary. I also personally felt like, ‘Okay, I don’t want to spend this much so I have to figure this out fast. I have to figure out how to heal more quickly.’” 

Sarah then found her current therapist a year later and is now paying $30 a session with insurance. 

“Now, I have a greater sense of security. I don’t feel like my parents are struggling to afford it. I became more willing to stick it out, like I can take my time and open up [to the therapist] more. With time, I noticed my experience got better and better.” Sarah said. 

As the pandemic has filled therapists’ waitlists to the brim and prices everywhere have slowly been driven up, people in Sarah’s situation are far from the minority. 

A poll from the American Psychological Association found that more than 80% of psychologists surveyed saw an increase in demand for anxiety and depression treatment. This was in October 2021, but a therapy shortage had already been a problem in 2019. The California Health Care Foundation found that “more than half the number of people who tried to get a mental health appointment believed they had to wait longer than reasonable.” For people struggling to find the right fit like Sarah, licensed marriage and family therapist Whitney Boole suggests calling therapists and asking for help even if that specific therapist is not the perfect fit for them. 

“When people call me wanting therapy and they cannot afford my fee, I help put them in touch with affordable services.” Boole said. “Finances can be an obstacle and it can be hard to get around them, but financial struggle shouldn’t stop anyone from getting the help they need.” 

Boole helps people get in touch with therapists who do take their insurance (Boole personally does not take insurance due to the heavy restrictions that insurance companies place on private practices) as well as therapists who offer sliding scale spots and associate therapists.

Sliding scale spots are client slots that have different pricing from the standard fee based on the client’s need, expected contribution and other personal considerations. Associate therapists are therapists who have not been fully licensed yet. 

“There’s a website called Open Path Collective, and it’s therapists who will slide their fee to $50. Associate therapists can also be a great choice because they are excellent therapists who are getting in their 3000 clinical hours before being licensed,” Boole said. “There are affordable options available. It just sometimes takes a little more work to find them.” 

Finding therapists to contact is most of the battle for other students like senior Karma Sarni. 

After an argument with their mother during the pandemic, Sarni’s family began to consider finding them a therapist to help them through the “mental issues” that Sarni has had “since elementary school.” 

Sarni’s main concern was their suspected ADHD, which contributed to their difficulty regulating emotions and “depression as long as she could remember.” These two things eventually led to their grades slipping in their junior year. 

“I started sobbing in front of [my mother] and she said, ‘We should get you therapy. I’ll get on that; this is clearly a priority.’ And then the conversation went nowhere. I never brought it up again because I knew she would not have the heart to tell me that it was because we didn’t have it in the budget.” Sarni said. 

Sarni’s family’s budget has always been tight, especially this year. One of the biggest problems that Sarni faces in regards to seeking therapy is that their parents “will always prioritize physical needs over mental needs.” 

“Even if we have the money to [get a therapist], it will always naturally be [deciding whether] we should use that money to get groceries or to eat out more. Only if we had money to spare would we consider it.” Sarni said. 

Sarni’s family has briefly looked over prices and options, but without insurance, they have not seriously pursued therapy. 

In these conditions, Boole recommends that teenagers like Sarni come back to therapy whenever they can afford to. 

“The only thing that teenagers can really change is themselves, but sometimes they go home to families and systems that aren’t working and their struggles that they can’t fix. It’s really tough. But a lot of colleges have therapy services that students can also try,” Boole said. “Obviously, I’m biased, but therapy is a great investment in your mental health and a way to address the issues that get in your way.” 

There are also ways to find free mental health care at RUHS. 

School psychologist Athena Schemerhorn recommends that when students feel that they need to talk to someone, “the first thing students should do is to make an appointment with the Wellness Center.” 

“The nice thing about the Wellness Center is that if you feel [your session] with them was helpful, you can also set up more regular check-ins,” Schemerhorn said. 

The Wellness Center also works with outside contracted mental health support programs. There is the South Bay Children’s Health Center that provides individual sessions as well as Clear Recovery programs for substance abuse. Although Schemerhorn herself mainly works with special-education students or students who need extra support through their individualized education programs (IEPs), she highly recommends that students seeking help visit the Wellness Center to see what kind of options they offer. 

Schemerhorn also recommends the Wellness Center as somewhere to escape the pressures and relentlessness of everyday school life. “Sometimes, when what you also need is just a break. The Wellness Center is perfect for that.”