How to Take Care of Your Mental Health When You Can’t Afford a Therapist

Expert tips on how to take care of your mind for less money
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Expert tips on how to take care of your mind for less money

Everywhere you look there’s advice on how to maintain physical health. But when was the last time you thought about your mental health?

Mental disorders such as anxiety and depression are common in the U.S., particularly among women. The prevalence rate for anxiety disorders in the U.S. is roughly 18 percent—that’s nearly one in five people. And women are 60 percent more likely than men to develop an anxiety disorder. Depression occurs in about 7 percent of the U.S. population, and again women are 70 percent more likely than men to develop depression at some point in their lives. What’s clear from all of this is that our mental well-being definitely deserves more attention. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health, “You don’t automatically have good mental health just because you don’t have mental health illness. You have to work to keep your mind healthy.”

Sadly, the reality is that seeking professional help for mental health can be expensive. Mental health organizations such as the American Psychological Association have been advocating for greater access to mental health services, but still nearly 44 percent of Americans either don’t have mental health coverage or aren’t sure if they do. Therapy is expensive if you pay out of pocket. Depending on where you live, seeing a therapist can range from $65 to $300 per session, and unlike taking an antibiotic for an infection, usually requires many visits. For some, attending therapy is financially prohibitive even though it would likely be beneficial.

So how can you invest in your mental health if you can’t afford therapy? What if you aren’t even sure therapy is what you need? Fortunately, there are low-cost (even free) and relatively accessible ways to invest in your mental health.

01. Benefit from Free Expert Knowledge

There is no substitute for therapy and your therapist’s extensive training. But thanks to the Internet, you can have access to therapists’ best practices across the country (and even the world). Many therapists blog or write articles on various mental health topics as a way to help others and promote their business. Popular sites include Psychology Today and Psych Central. Verily features great relationship articles by therapist Zach Brittle. Interested in learning about ways to fight depression or improve your marriage? You’re only a quick Google search away. Be sure to research the author to ensure that you are getting information from a reputable source. Your local university, library, or church may offer mental health–related workshops as well.

02. Self-Care, Self-Care, Self-Care

Let’s say it one more time: self-care. Stress wears us down physically and emotionally. If left unchecked, it could trigger sleep issues, muscle pain, headaches, anxiety, social withdrawal, and substance abuse, according to the Mayo Clinic. The best way to manage stress is to practice self-care. This means investing in your emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Eat a balanced diet. Aim for seven to eight hours of quality sleep. And work regular exercise into your schedule. These are all important aspects of self-care. Surround yourself with positive, uplifting friends. Invest in hobbies and other activities that you find relaxing. If spirituality is an important part of your life, focus on your spiritual development whether through prayer, meditation, church services, etc. When you invest in your physical, emotional, and spiritual health, you reduce the risk of experiencing the negative effects of stress.

03. Consider Low(er)-Cost Therapy Options

If you think you could benefit from therapy but are intimidated by the price tag, there are some lower-cost options out there. Many therapists and practices offer a sliding fee scale based on your income. That means that your therapist will often charge you a lower fee the lower your income is. If you are looking on websites such as Psychology Today, the therapists will often specify if they offer a sliding scale.

Another option for lower-cost therapy is your local university training clinic. Graduate students who are working hard to earn their master’s or doctoral degrees provide therapy for a reduced fee. (You can visit UCLA’s Psychology Clinic webpage to see an example.) These therapists-in-training are supervised by experienced therapists. So in a sense, you are getting expert guidance at a reduced rate. Just be sure to look into the training center and the supervisor’s experience and qualifications.

Virtual therapy is another option. Talkspace offers packages that allow you to chat online 24/7 with a licensed therapist who can help you from the comfort of your own living room.

04. Practice Mindfulness

Life is so busy, and it never seems like we have enough time to get everything done or even breathe. Taking time to live in the present, also known as mindfulness, is an excellent way to take a pause in your day from the demands of life. Whether it’s taking deep, focused breaths while you are at your desk (here’s a quick intro to deep breathing) or meditating at home, mindfulness is a calming routine that allows you to just be without worrying or thinking about what you have to do next. Other mindfulness practices include keeping a gratitude journal (or a traditional journal) and visualizing a peaceful place. As an added bonus, practicing mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.

05. Monitor by Smartphone

Your smartphone is a gold mine for tools that help you invest in self-care and check in on your emotional health. Apps such as Calm can help guide and track your progress as you practice mindfulness. There are also apps for monitoring your anxiety levels, such as Self-Help for Anxiety Management, or your mood, such as the T2 Mood Tracker. If you are up for a little research, there are many articles detailing top mental health apps that can give you some good options. It all depends on what works for you. Because our smartphones have become an extension of ourselves (with its pros and cons), it’s a convenient way to watch over your mental health.

06. Find Local Support

If you have specific issues you are struggling with, such as anxiety, seek a supportive environment to help you cope and develop useful strategies. A quick Google search of your area reveals a wealth of free support groups, clubs, and twelve-step groups that are all free. Alcoholics Anonymous is a helpful resource for anyone struggling with alcohol abuse or dependence. AlAnon is a supportive group for individuals who have a loved one struggling with substance abuse or dependence. There are also some variations based on the AA model, including Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Gamblers Anonymous. Mental Health America is an organization that offers helpful resources and tips for finding support groups in your area, including grief support and eating disorder groups. Or check out a nearby church, training university, or hospital for free support groups.

07. Know the Signs

Sometimes, investing in self-care and surrounding yourself with support isn’t enough. Learn to recognize the signs that what you are dealing with is more than you can handle alone. If your social or occupational life is being negatively affected by what you are dealing with, it is likely that you could use outside help. For example, if you feel so overwhelmed that you call in sick for several days, you may need professional help. The National Institute for Mental Health has helpful resources on mental health, including information about different diagnoses, treatment options, and locating services.

It’s important to know that it’s OK to need help. Therapists are trained to help you with life’s difficulties, reduce symptoms, and help you achieve your goals. If it is an emergency, dial 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. Hotlines are also helpful for on-the-spot guidance. Womenshealth.gov lists national hotlines, including the Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) and the Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233).

Investing in your mental health is just as important as caring for your physical health, and it deserves top priority. You don’t have to be diagnosed with a mental illness to benefit from therapy. A good therapist won’t instruct you on how to live your life. Rather, he or she helps you gain valuable insight into yourself so that you can make better choices. Taking care of your mental health is hard work. Self-improvement happens when you make an honest assessment of yourself and your life. Therapy is a space that enables you to take responsibility for your actions and learn from them. Fortunately, there’s a wealth of information out there to support you as you incorporate a little mental TLC into your day.