Going to Counseling

Julie Walker, Take Control Staff

This guide is designed for people who would benefit from relief of basic daily emotional stress. If you are in a mental health crisis, get help right away at a hospital emergency room, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or use their online chat option.

Going to counseling can be a game-changer -- not only for mental health, but also physical health. Each of us face events every year that disrupt our emotional health, including loss of a job, poor work culture, events with children or parents, death, marriage and divorce, illness or injury, financial issues or even moving into a new home. Events like these and others can cause stress, sadness, anxiety, distraction, or worry. Our bodies respond to these things not only emotionally, but also physically. Events like these can trigger high blood pressure, ulcers, weight gain or loss, weakened immune system, insomnia, and more.

When you’re in an emotionally stressful situation it’s hard to think about going to counseling because you don’t believe you have time for it. Not only that, but they don’t make the system very easy to navigate. Counseling or other mental health services may be services you don’t often utilize, if at all, so you may not even know where to begin to schedule an appointment. There have been times when I have a cold, and I know cold medicine will make me feel better, but just going to the store to get it feels overwhelming. Getting health care for emotional stress can be like that, only even more overwhelming. But the benefits of getting care will be more than worth it if you can overcome the hurdle and get started.

Counseling is extremely valuable to your health, including the following benefits:

  • Learn about stress, anxiety, depression, or any condition you have and the treatment options
  • Learn skills to cope with emotional stress
  • Gain self-acceptance and self-esteem
  • Gain emotional relief from stress, anxiety, depression or any condition
  • Gain confidence and decision-making abilities
  • Learn to express and manage emotions
  • Learn how to overcome self-defeating behaviors
  • Clarify a problem and learn to overcome or cope with it
  • Explore opportunities for change/improvement
  • Manage anxiety

Here is a guide to help you get started.

1. Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

Employee Assistance Programs were designed to be an entry into counseling, and they are the first place to start. Most employers who offer EAP programs offer a certain number of sessions for free – with no co-pay. So, you want to take advantage of the free sessions first. If you need more sessions than the free ones, Take Control may be able to authorize additional free sessions depending on your employer group. After the free sessions, the cost will transfer to your medical insurance plan and you will likely only have to pay a small co-pay for each session depending on your plan. Some insurance plans offer free sessions PER ISSUE; so, you can use them for job stress one month and parenting stress the next month. Other insurance providers offer a firm number of sessions per year that are covered by an EAP. To utilize your EAP program, look at the benefits page on your employer’s human resources website, or contact your human resources department. It’s typically a phone number you call to get started. See section three below about how to choose a provider.

2. Medical Insurance Covers Counseling

If you don’t have an EAP program, or you’ve used your free sessions, you can use your medical insurance to pay for counseling. In 2008 a law was passed, a Federal parity law, that requires coverage of services for mental health, behavioral health and substance-use disorders to be comparable to physical health coverage. The insurer must also treat the financial aspect of it with parity as well, so if you have a $20 co-pay for medical visits, you will also have a $20 co-pay for mental health provider visits. They key to keeping the costs down when using your insurance is to choose an in-network provider. See section three below about how to choose a provider.

3. Choose a Provider

If you have an EAP program, call them to initiate the counseling benefit. The EAP will likely ask you if you have a provider in mind, or they will give you some names to choose from. If you don’t have a preference, you can choose one of the names they offer. If you need the provider to be available outside of typical business hours, tell the EAP agent what parameters you need to work with. When I used my EAP service, I wrote down about four names they gave me and said I would call back after I did my research. I looked up each provider name online to find out where their office was located, checked out their website when they had one, read any specialties they work with and if there were any reviews. I also compared the list they gave me to my medical insurance “in-network” provider list, to make sure if I used my free sessions that the provider would accept my medical insurance and that they are in-network for co-pays. I chose a provider whose office was in a good location for me, and who looked like someone I could relate to. Sometimes you can do appointments over the phone, so if you prefer that, ask the EAP agent if that is an option. After choosing a provider, tell the EAP and they will have the provider call you to set up an appointment. Whoever you choose, if you don’t mesh well after a few sessions, go back and choose a different provider. It’s important to find someone you feel very comfortable with.

If you don’t have an EAP program, start by looking at the in-network provider list for your medical insurance. You can usually do this online, but you can also call customer service and ask them to give you a list. When you look online, the counseling providers fall into a few different categories. They may be listed as Clinical Social Worker (CSW), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Clinical Psychologist (Ph.D. or PsyD) or Psychiatrist (MD). Psychiatrists usually work with serious mental health issues such as schizophrenia and debilitating anxiety and depression. Most people will use the first six types of providers on the list rather than a psychiatrist. If you’re comfortable asking a friend, you can ask around to see if any family or friends have recommendations for counselors they’ve used and liked. After you have a few names chosen, call the provider to make sure they are still in-network with your insurance and that they are accepting new patients. If both answers are yes, proceed with scheduling an appointment. Some providers will offer telephone appointments if you prefer, but you usually need to go to the office to meet in person once before switching to telephone appointments. As mentioned above, after a few appointments, if you don’t feel you mesh well with the counselor, go back and try someone different. It’s important to find someone you feel very comfortable with.

4. Going to Appointments

Choosing a provider is one of the hardest parts about going to counseling, going to the appointments is usually straight forward. The first time you go, you will probably need to go early to fill out paperwork. Bring your medical insurance card so you have the information for their form. Most counselors have a waiting area that is shared between a group of providers. Some have receptionists where you check in, and other use a call button system. If they use call buttons, they have you press the button when you arrive and then they’ll come to the lobby to greet you. In the first session they will cover background information to get established and then get into issues that you need to discuss. Each session is usually about 50 minutes. After the session the counselor will ask if you want to schedule another session, so bring your calendar to make the next appointment before you leave.

Getting started is the hard part. Once you get established with a counselor you will begin to enjoy the many benefits to your emotional and physical health. You will likely find a trusting, safe place to find relief from emotional stress and develop strategies to face issues that interfere with your health and happiness. Keep in mind that couples counseling is often treated differently than individual counseling, so ask your therapist or insurance company how to best approach it if needed. Often to get insurance coverage, one partner will need to get established with a therapist, then invite the other partner to join a session.

Research shows that the benefits of therapy last longer than taking medication alone. So do what you can to get established with a trusted therapist, and then you’ll always have a resource when issues come up throughout life.