If you're looking for help but can't afford private support, you still have options. Here we look at some alternative routes you can take
At the time of writing, we’re existing in a very strained time. More people are struggling financially as the cost of living crisis escalates. This in itself is taking a toll on mental health for many.
Even without this crisis in the picture, it’s important to recognise that paying for private therapy is inaccessible for some.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have options though. Here we want to talk through the different routes you can take to look after your mental health without spending more than you can afford.
Look into counselling on the NHS
This is the first route a lot of us go down. If you’re registered with a GP, you can access therapy for free through the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme. The types of therapies you can access in this way will depend on your individual needs, but include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), guided self-help (where a therapist supports you as you complete a self-help course, using a workbook or online) and counselling for depression (a specific type of counselling for those with depression).
There are several different ways your therapy may be delivered, from one-to-one and group sessions, to over-the-phone therapy and self-help courses. Going to your GP in the first instance can be helpful as they often suggest a therapy type and refer you. You don’t however need a referral from your doctor to access these therapies.
You can easily self-refer directly to a therapy provider in your area. Depending on where you live, you will need to be over the age of 16, 17 or 18 to do this. If you’re younger than this, you can get support from your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS).
If you do self-refer, you’ll need to contact the therapy provider and they’ll come back to you within a few weeks to give you an assessment (usually done over the phone). This is where they’ll ask you for some more details of what you’ve been experiencing so they can understand how best to support you. They will then let you know when your first appointment will be.
What can be a barrier for some people on this route is the waiting time. The amount of time you’ll have to wait to get treatment will depend on a number of factors, including where you live. If the wait is long and you need help sooner, you may want to look into the other options below.
Consider low-cost therapy
There are some private practices and organisations that offer low-cost therapy. This may be a blanket fee for everyone, or they may offer concessions for those on benefits or low-income households. Never be afraid to ask about these when researching private therapists, while some will advertise them, others will work on a case by case basis.
You may also want to think about reaching out to therapy-training providers to see if trainee counsellors offer reduced rates. Trainee counsellors will need to complete at least 200 hours of therapy work before graduating, so you could help them achieve their goal whilst getting the support you need.
Reach out to charities
Many mental health charities offer free support, whether through helplines, support forums or even counselling services. We list a range of charities offering this type of support on our where to get help page, take a look and see if there’s anything there that could help.
You may also want to look into more local charities. For example, local Mind branches offer a range of services including talking therapies, crisis helplines, drop-in centres, employment and training schemes, counselling and befriending.
Speak to your employer
If you’re employed by a company, ask your HR department if they offer an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). This is a benefit funded by the company that offers employees confidential counselling and support with a range of work-related and personal concerns.
Not all employers will offer this, but it’s certainly worth finding out (and if they don’t offer it, perhaps suggest they research the benefits). If they do, you can use our EAP search on Counselling Directory to find a counsellor who works with your health insurance provider.
Ask about free counselling services at school/college/university
As a student, you likely feel a lot of pressure and may find your mental health struggles. A lot of people with mental health conditions say symptoms start in their teenage years of early adulthood, so know that you’re not alone.
Your school, college or university may offer free counselling sessions. Ask a teacher about it or speak to your Student Union – you can find out more and get mental health support at Student Minds. As a student, you may also be offered reduced rates for private therapy.
Join a support group
While support groups aren’t the same as receiving therapy, they can be (as their name suggests) very supportive when you’re struggling. Talking to others who have experienced similar struggles can offer you advice and tools to try. Often used alongside therapy, getting support in this way can help bridge the gap if you’re on a waiting list for NHS therapy.
While support groups are currently unable to meet in-person, there are lots of online support groups to try. Here you can chat with people online or via the phone. You may want to look at mental health charities to see what support groups they offer or you can use the Happiful app to find support groups (download via the App store or Google Play).
Download a mental health app
Alongside our own app (where you can read helpful articles, find support groups and qualified therapists), there are many apps out there designed to help you manage your mental health. There is a wide range available, from mood trackers and meditation apps to apps that connect you with therapists and offer tools for managing unhelpful thoughts.
Depending on your circumstance, an app alone may not be enough to help you manage your mental health, but for many with common conditions like low-level anxiety and depression, they can offer support for free or at a low-cost. Not sure where to start? We recommend looking at the NHS App Library for apps that have been assessed and approved by the NHS.
Try self-help books
Another self-help option is to read books that offer guidance and support for particular mental health challenges. Books written by people who have experienced the same condition or by experts can help you gain a clearer understanding of your feelings and offer tools of support to try, such as journaling or thought-exercises.
A great place to start here is the Reading Well scheme, created by the Reading Agency and Society of Chief Librarians. Here you’ll find lists of books all recommended by health experts as well as people living with the conditions covered and their relatives and carers.
They currently have five book lists available: Reading Well for mental health, Reading Well for young people, Reading Well for children, Reading Well for dementia and Reading Well for long-term conditions. You can visit your local library to read any book from these lists for free.
Not sure if self-help or professional help is right for you? Watch our interview with CBT therapist and mindfulness teacher Natalie Englander.
We hope the above options have given you some ideas of where to turn next if you can’t afford therapy. Whatever position you’re in, please know that there are always options to find support.
Article originally published: 28 May 2020
Updated: 14 September 2022