What to Do on a Therapy Waitlist
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If you've been having trouble finding a therapist, you're not alone. Unfortunately, having insurance does not guarantee that you can immediately book an appointment. And even if you're paying out-of-pocket, it can still be difficult to find the right mental health professional.
According to the American Psychological Association's 2021 survey, psychologists reported a significant increase in demand for their services since the start of the pandemic. And 65% said they had no openings for incoming patients at all.
The National Council of Mental Wellbeing reports the average wait time to access behavioral health services is about six weeks. But if you're looking for a specialist in a certain area or with specific attributes, wait times can stretch into months.
So, what can you do while waiting to get the help you need?
How to Find a Therapist: What to Do When Your Chosen Therapist is Full
See Your Primary Care Doctor
General practitioners rarely specialize in mental health or therapy, but it is a good idea to see one if you're having trouble finding a therapist.
Primary care doctors can rule out any underlying conditions that may be affecting your mental state and prescribe psychiatric medication, if necessary. They may also refer you to a mental health provider with availability.
Naturopathic doctors are another option to explore. They can recommend diet changes, perform physical exams, and order blood work to identify vitamin deficiencies and other abnormalities.
Try Teletherapy or Widening Your Search Parameters
If you are open to trying teletherapy, try widening your search parameters on therapist-finding websites outside of your city's zip code. Mental health professionals are licensed at the state level, which means that therapists living anywhere in your state can potentially provide teletherapy.
You can also find teletherapy providers through platforms like Talkspace and BetterHelp. Some of these websites have even started to work with insurance companies. You can contact your provider to find out if your plan offers coverage for these websites.
However, be aware that some of these websites may have limitations on whether or not therapists can make mental health diagnoses. So, if you are seeking a diagnosis immediately, keep this in mind.
Another option is to pay for teletherapy sessions out-of-pocket and then submit your bills to a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) or Health Saving Account (HSA) plan if you have one. Ask your FSA or HSA provider if reimbursement is an option.
You may also want to look into sliding scale therapy, a payment model based on a patient's income. This is a good option if you are having trouble finding a therapist in your network.
Most therapists offer at least 1-2 slots for sliding scale clients even if they do not advertise this information online. You can inquire with them directly to find out. You can also check the Open Path Collective, which provides a database of mental health professionals. Therapists typically offer sessions for $30-$60 without insurance in person and online.
Self Care While on the Therapy Waitlist
There are several actions you can take while waiting to start therapy to cope with your mental health symptoms and prepare for treatment.
- 1. Plan What Questions to Ask Therapist
First, make sure that the mental health professional you've chosen is a good fit before getting on their waitlist. This minimizes the chances of being dissatisfied with their services and having to start the process over again.
In addition to inquiring about insurance and scheduling information, you should also come up with a list of in-depth questions:
- Which therapeutic techniques and modalities do you use most often?
- Do you ever switch modalities mid-treatment if one approach is not working?
- Do you typically work with patients with my symptoms?
- Do you typically diagnose patients or do you prefer not to make diagnoses?
- Do you consider yourself a culturally competent therapist?
- Are you trauma informed?
- What (if anything) forces you to break confidentiality?
- Is psychiatric medication central to your therapy philosophy?
- How do you handle a crisis?
- How long does therapy typically last?
Taking the time to have this conversation not only gives you practical information about their therapy philosophy and modalities. It also gives you the chance to gauge whether or not their communication style resonates with you, i.e., if you "click" with each other, which can be crucial to the success of your treatment.
Most mental health professionals will answer these questions over the phone or schedule a free consultation before taking you on as a client.
- 2. Use Free Resources
There are many free resources that can help you take care of your mental health while waiting to start therapy.
Apps: According to a Frontiers in Psychology article that evaluated 19 studies measuring mental health apps' effectiveness, the ability of apps to reduce stress, depression, anxiety and general mental health are promising. The following are just a few of the most popular mental wellness apps available on iOS and Android.
- Moodfit allows you to set and monitor your goals, complete activities, and track progress. Activities include guided meditations, a cognitive behavioral therapy tool to analyze your thoughts, and areas to document your sleep schedule, exercise routine, and diet.
- Calm focuses on reducing stress and anxiety through guided meditations, relaxing music and soundscapes, and sleep stories.
- Shine is designed by and for underrepresented groups, especially BIPOC communities. Similar to other apps in the mental health space, it suggests self-care strategies, offers guided meditations, and other audio content. However, Shine keeps cultural sensitivity at the forefront of its service.
Reading and Listening: Try picking up a self-help book or downloading a psychology-related podcast while you're waiting for therapy. While not a replacement for psychotherapy, these materials can offer different perspectives on how to approach your thoughts, habits, and circumstances. If you're looking for ideas, ask your therapist if they have any recommended reading. Or, check out some of the New York Times' recommended titles of 2021, including Unwinding Anxiety, the New Normal, and How to Change.
Helplines: When self care is not enough and you need emotional support immediately, helplines offer a free, confidential resource. Helpline workers can recommend coping strategies, connect you with resources, or simply offer an empathetic ear. The National Institute of Mental Health provides a list of organizations that offer helplines. Many are available 24/7.
- 3. Join a Support Group
There are support groups for all kinds of mental conditions, disorders, addictions, and other life challenges. Members meet to share experiences and coping strategies, helping to develop a sense of community.
There are many national organizations with local chapters across the U.S., groups that meet online, and independent local groups only available in your area.
You can find support groups in your state or online through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America's search engine or simply by Googling support groups and your city name.
- 4. Take on Some Self-Care
While self care is not a sufficient solution for people experiencing mental conditions, it can reduce some symptoms of stress, depression, and anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the following science-backed exercises are some of the most effective ways to practice self care.
Exercise: It's been repeated countless times, but there is no discounting the positive effects of routine exercise on mental health. In 2021, the John W. Brick Foundation analyzed more than 1,000 studies conducted over the last 30 years. Nine out of 10 studies found a significant positive association between physical activity and mental health.
Whether you do aerobic exercise, yoga, power walking, or a combination of different physical activities, making movement a part of your daily routine can make a difference for those experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety.
Limit Caffeine, Alcohol, and Nicotine: Many people lean on caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine during times of hardship. But these substances may worsen psychological distress in some people.
If you use one of these substances regularly, it can be very difficult to reduce use during times of stress and anxiety. But, try not to increase consumption, as it can potentially aggravate symptoms further.
Prioritize Sleep: Chronic oversleeping and insomnia can both be signs of depression. Unfortunately, both oversleeping and staying up late can exacerbate mental health conditions, contributing to a vicious cycle. Sticking to a sleep schedule can help you improve your sleep quality and overall mental health.
Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is often associated with religion and spirituality, but you don't have to subscribe to any dogma to benefit from it. Research shows its ability to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and even pain. It can also help those who smoke and experience addiction.
Incorporating meditation and breathing exercises into your daily routine can help you stay in the moment and break away from negative thoughts. Although, be aware that mindfulness practices are not recommended for those that have experienced trauma.
In addition to these science-backed, self-care strategies, try to prioritize activities that interest you. Some ideas include trying a new recipe, taking a relaxing bath, going for a walk in a new neighborhood, journaling, or checking into a hotel for just one night to change the scenery. If you need to take a mental health day from work to reset and have the ability to do so, allow yourself this time without feeling guilty.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I get diagnosed with a mental illness?
While most counselors and psychologists have the authority to diagnose patients, many choose to take a non-diagnostic approach. If securing a diagnosis is important to you due to insurance coverage purposes, make sure to ask your mental health professional about this during the initial consultation.
Why is it so difficult to find a therapist?
There is currently a shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S. and an increased demand for therapy due to the pandemic. This combination has made it harder to find a well-suited therapist with availability.
How can I find a therapist that accepts my insurance?
The most direct way to find a therapist in your network is to contact your insurance company and ask them for a list of providers in your area. You can also explore telehealth providers in your state if you are open to video-conducted therapy.
Rayelle Davis, M.Ed., LCPC, NCC, BC-TMH
Rayelle Davis is a nationally board-certified counselor, a licensed clinical professional counselor, and a board-certified telemental health provider. As a nontraditional student, she earned her associate degree in psychology at Allegany College of Maryland. She went on to earn her bachelor's degree in psychology online at the University of Maryland Global Campus. Davis earned her master's degree in counseling education with a concentration in marriage, couples, and family therapy from Duquesne University.
She has taught several undergraduate psychology courses. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Duquesne University where she has also worked as an adjunct instructor and clinical supervisor for master's students. She practices psychotherapy at her private practice in Maryland.
Rayelle Davis is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.