Is Free Counseling Right For You?
By Sarah Fader
Updated June 17, 2019
Reviewer Dr. Angel Faith
The words "I'm going to see a counselor" frighten a lot of people. This is because, unfortunately, it sometimes carries with it the stigma that comes from being labeled as "weak" or "broken". Nobody wants to admit they don't have it all together. Nobody wants to admit they may not have the answers and that they need help. The thing is though, we all need help on occasion because we are all only human, and this is where counseling comes in.
First however, it is important to understand the difference between counseling and therapy. While a counselor will generally listen, give advice and help the individual in question to reach a specific desired outcome, they aren't always trained specifically in Psychology. In fact, while many counselors do indeed have license as well as educational backgrounds in the subject of Psychology, counselors can also be people such as clergy, life coaches, spiritual advisors, etc.
Psychotherapists and psychologists, on the other hand, are licensed professionals who hold a degree in the subject they advise on. Additionally, therapists tend to take a more psychological and behavioral approach to problems than do counselors. Because of this, counselors may be a bit less intimidating for people who are apprehensive about getting help in the first place, seeing as they can feel a bit more relatable - like simply talking with a new friend.
Keeping that in mind, if you have reached a place in your life where you feel at a loss for what to do next (whether that be because you're depressed, you feel your relationship with your significant other ending, you've recently lost someone close to you, you have issues coping with the stresses of each day, etc), therapy and/or counseling can be extremely beneficial. Talking with a therapist or counselor may provide new insights/perspectives as well as some tools to keep you moving forward.
The main issue here however, is therapy - as helpful as it can be - also tends to be pretty expensive. So even if you want to get help, there may be financial barriers. After all, very few of us have an extra $200 a week to drop for just an hour of help.
Luckily, there are affordable and even free sources of counseling out there. Now, counseling is not always an appropriate replacement for therapy, however in many cases it can be quite helpful. The tricks to finding affordable or free counseling services are: a) you have to know where to look, and b) do your research on which option is right for you.
That said, below are several forms of free counseling which you may find to be helpful.
Free counseling hotlines
This type of counseling involves calling a pre-determined number for an unscheduled and free counseling chat over the phone at any time of day or night. Numbers vary depending on where you live as well as what specific type of service you are looking for, but can often be found via a quick Google search. Simply type in the words "counseling", "hotline" and/or "help" in addition to the type of help you are seeking and hit the search button. Furthermore, many schools, universities and recreation centers have numbers for these lines posted on bulletin boards. Not to mention, the national suicide prevention hotline is the same number nationally (e.g. 1-800-273-8255).
Having said that, there are several different help lines available to those in need, including: help lines for those contemplating taking their own lives (as mentioned just above), victims of domestic violence and abuse, victims of sexual assault, etc.
In short, this type of free counseling isn't long term, but it can be extremely beneficial in cases of emergencies. Therefore, it is most often used by those people in need of immediate help. Because of this, if you feel yourself getting close to a crisis, it could be a good idea to take some preventative action and research some hotlines for yourself, that way you have them handy if necessary.
Free counseling via support groups
You have likely heard of supportive groups such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). What you might be less familiar with however, is that this group is a type of free counseling, and in fact reaches for further than simply acting as a help source to those who have a problem with addiction to alcohol. Similar groups include: grief support groups, cancer survivor groups, co-dependency support groups, groups for children of alcoholic, binge eating support groups and many many more.
Basically, if you can think of it, there is probably a support group out there for it. Even still, while some of these groups are widely and well known (such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Sex Love Addicts Anonymous, Grief Share, etc) and are easy to find via a simple internet search for the next location and time, there are many additional support groups, likely all within your own town that are more discrete and can be a bit more difficult to find. For more obscure groups, you might consider reaching out to local counselors who specializes in the area you are concerned about and asking for help finding the type of group you are looking for. Often, the counselors you reach out to will be more than willing to help you by giving you a list of references, free of charge.
In view of all of this, this type of free counseling is likely best for those who a) don't mind sharing their thoughts and feelings in larger group setting and b) aren't just looking for tools or new skills (although that will be part of it), but are also looking for support via peers going through the same things.
Free counseling through places of worship
Free counseling through a place of worship is straight forward, no matter what religion you are. Although this form of counseling is not the same as therapy, it can be a source of support and assistance. If you have a place of worship you are already a regular member at, seeking counseling from the clergy may be as simple as setting an appointment to talk with whomever leads the congregation and services. In these cases, many feel a close connection with said clergy member already - as they already look to them as a spiritual leader - therefore, discussing personal issues is significantly easier than it may have been with a stranger.
On the other hand, if you have a specific religion or set of beliefs you hold dear and practice, however, you do not have a designated place of worship you call your own, do a bit of research to find one that might fit. Find some places you may feel comfortable visiting nearby, as well as make a few calls and even drop by for a few services to see how it feels.
For example, say you have decided this is the route you'd like to go. Your first step should be to search for local places of worship in your general area - specific to the type of belief you hold of course. Second, see if this specific place of worship, has a number you can contact to get ahold of their leader. Then, if they have a number, go ahead and make a call. Explain your situation and that you are looking for some guidance and help, as well as ask if you can make an appointment to discuss you concerns. Lastly, go ahead and actually visit the building where you've decided to seek help, attend a service or two and mingle with the congregation. This can be beneficial in that you may not only receive solace in the surroundings themselves, but you may be able to meet with (in person), someone who is able to counsel and help you right away.
Free counseling through your place of employment
Many workplaces offer free counseling services to their employees, though not many employees know this. Luckily finding out if your employer offers this is a pretty straight forward process. All you need to do is contact your HR department to see if these services are available to you. Then, if they are, request information from HR about how to go about using them. There may be an in-house counselor, or there may be a list of therapists/counselors that your employer approves of. Regardless, if this is a benefit offered by your employer it can often be provided free of charge.
Furthermore, while not all employers offer counseling service to their employees, it can be helpful to note that most work places that involve extremely high levels of stress for their employees will. Therefore, if you find yourself in a very stressful work environment, this could be a good route to consider.
Free counseling online
Online counseling in and of itself is on the rise. Usually entailing signing up for an account, getting paired with an online professional, then chatting via instant messaging, email, video phone (i.e. Skype, etc), or through a corresponding app, online counseling allows for a sense of anonymity (and therefore honesty), which may be more comfortable - depending on the person - than in a face-to-face setting. It should be noted however, that online counseling is not usually free. While there are some free (and affordable) counseling sights out there, many are just as expensive as the face-to-face option. So how do you find online counseling that is affordable?
This may require that you do some research. Sure, there are well known sites out there that offer free online counseling, but the best way to find a site that fits your specific needs is to dig in and do a search via the internet.
Free counseling through government help and programs
There are plenty of free counseling options the government offers to those who are unable to afford the services on their own, including free, face-to-face sessions. The trick here however, is figuring out what these services are, if you qualify for them, and how to go about obtaining them.
Unfortunately, there isn't a simple, cut and dry answer when it comes to what services the government offers, as it varies from state to state and county to county. Generally speaking, however, if you dial the number "211" (no matter where you are located, at least with regards to the United States), you will likely be connected to the human and social services within your specific area.
You can then ask about obtaining information on programs and resources that may be available to you. Also, you can check out your state government's website, under the Department of Human Services section for information as well. Finally, if you are on Medicade, there is a good chance you may be covered for at least one free thirty-minute counseling session a month, so be sure to check if that is an option as well.
Free counseling through training clinics and universities
There are plenty of therapists and psychologists (i.e. more extensively trained psychotherapists, usually with a doctorate in psychology), in training out there who know a lot, but need a certain number of hours before they can meet criteria for their licensing board. Just like you might go to a beauty school salon for a cheaper cut and color, so too can you go to a training clinic (most often located within a university), to get some free counseling sessions. It is important to know that any sessions completed with a pre-licensed professional will also be supervised by a more experienced psychotherapist for the purpose of training and adequate care.
If you would prefer a face-to-face session, this is a great option for you to consider, seeing as it will likely be and include everything a "real" counseling session would have had you found it outside the walls of a training clinic, minus the cost.
Moreover, finding sessions like these can be relatively simple. All you need to do is contact universities near you, (the website will likely be the best way to do this), then find their Psychology department webpage. The information you need will likely be located here, and if not, there should be a phone number you can call that will lead you directly to the Psychology department itself, where you can get the information you need.
All in all, there are lots of free options out there if counseling is something you need but not something you can afford. Whether you are open to group sessions, looking for help online, need immediate support or are looking for a low-cost face-to-face option, there are free mental health and counseling options for everyone.
Before you consider these free counseling options though, be sure to make sure and check with your current insurance to see what exactly it is they offer as far as mental health care goes. Many people don't realize that they are covered for a certain number of counseling and/or therapy appointments each year at no cost to them. Additionally, consider free online trials (i.e. trials where you get one or more free sessions before having to commit to a membership fee).
Finally, if you find yourself in a situation where none of these options end up working for you, don't write off counseling all together. There are still plenty of affordable counseling options out there (both online and off), for you to consider. The main point is, if you are hurting, feel lost or are just in need of some help, make yourself a priority and get the mental health care you need. You'll thank yourself later.