Finding a Therapist for Your College Student: What Parents Need to Know

Come November, the days are short, the college workload is heavy, and the end-of-semester finish line seems awfully far away. Not surprisingly, some students find themselves looking for more support than their parents or friends can provide. If your son or daughter needs to locate a therapist, these questions might arise.

college student
Some college students may find they need the support of a therapist. (Twenty20 @amyjhumphries)

Finding a Therapist for Your College Student: FAQs

How do I find a provider?

College counseling centers are staffed by well-trained, seasoned clinicians who are excellent at supporting undergrads. If your student is facing a crisis, this should be the first stop. Counseling centers offer walk-in appointments, are free of charge, have clinicians who are plugged into relevant resources at the college, and know how to collaborate with faculty and administrators, if needed, to help students who have hit a rough patch.

In general, college counseling centers are terrific at providing short-term support – usually fewer than ten counseling sessions – and not designed to offer ongoing psychotherapy. If forming an ongoing therapeutic relationship makes most sense, you may want to consider clinicians in the community surrounding your son or daughter’s college.

How do I locate a nearby clinician?

Phone the college counseling center! All college counseling centers are familiar with the local resources and happy to connect you to them. Call the main number, tell them what you are looking for, and you’ll get a quick call back, often from the counseling center director, with suggestions of clinicians who are known by the college to be excellent at addressing the needs of college students.

If you’d like, you can call anonymously; you need not disclose your name or your student’s when connecting with the counseling center. Alternately, use your own resources to track down a reputable therapist near your son or daughter. Phone your child’s pediatrician, trusted clinicians near you, or psychotherapists you know elsewhere. Many clinicians have broad national networks and can spare you the trouble of picking a name blindly from a web directory.

What am I looking for?

When seeking a psychotherapist, there are several variables for your college student to consider in order to secure a good fit. Does your student have a preference for working with a man or a woman? Does the clinician’s age matter? What about the clinician’s theoretical orientation? There are many traditions within the world of psychotherapy and different approaches suit different clients. Here’s a quick primer:

  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy: This brand of psychotherapy takes an open-ended, supportive, and exploratory approach. The emphasis centers on unconscious processes, interpersonal relationships, and understanding the origins of repeated, unhelpful patterns.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: This brand of psychotherapy is problem-focused and solution-oriented. It illuminates how patterns of thought and action contribute to psychological distress, and how they can be changed to bring about relief.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy: This relatively new form of therapy aims to help clients develop healthy skills for managing difficult feelings. It’s especially appropriate for clients who turn to self-destructive behaviors – such as drinking excessively or harming themselves – when distressed.
  • You can learn more about these and other brands of psychotherapy here.

Don’t worry about the letters behind a psychotherapist’s name. The nature of a therapist’s graduate training often says little about his or her quality as a clinician. Just make sure that the clinician is licensed by the state and comes recommended by a trusted source.

What about specialists?

Any seasoned clinician should be able to help clients with depression, anxiety, or relationship challenges. If you’re unsure about whether a clinician will be a good fit, you or your college student should feel free to ask prospective therapists if they address the concerns at hand. Some challenges call for a specialist in a particular treatment area. If your college student is struggling with substance abuse, an eating disorder, or trauma, let your referral sources know.

How does confidentiality work?

In general, psychotherapy is like Las Vegas: what happens there, stays there. Your college student has the option of signing a consent form that will allow you to speak freely with his or her clinician if you, your student, and the clinician deem that appropriate. If your son or daughter choses not to sign such a form but you feel that there is pressing information the clinician should know, you have an option: you can call the therapist and leave information in a voice message.

Ethically, the clinician cannot return your call, or even acknowledge that your child is a client. Most therapists, myself included, would alert the client to the call and address the information, and how it arrived, as a part of the psychotherapy. Accordingly, you’ll want to weigh carefully the costs and benefits of making such a call before doing so.

Can I use my insurance?

Here’s the short answer: it depends. To save yourself, and your college student, some trouble you might start by calling your insurance carrier to see what coverage they provide for in-network and out-of-network clinicians near your student. In general, insurance coverage of psychotherapy is stacked against the consumer: insurers usually offer limited coverage for a limited number of clinicians. And therapists who can maintain vibrant practices without taking insurance (usually the more skilled and seasoned clinicians) have no financial incentive to belong to insurance panels. If your resources are tight, you can ask clinicians who are not covered by your insurance if they offer a sliding-scale fee.

Finding a therapist can make things better for your college student when the end of the semester can’t come fast enough. Good psychotherapy helps young people build their independence, learn to take excellent care of themselves, and consider healthy choices and possibilities that previously seemed out of reach. By the time your son or daughter seeks psychotherapy, things are already moving in the right direction.

You Might Also Want to Read:

The Teen Brain

Teen Stress

About Lisa Damour

Dr. Lisa Damour is a psychologist and author of New York Times best-selling books Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls

Dr. Damour is in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a senior advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University and the executive director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. She is a regular contributor to CBS News and writes the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times.  Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter

Read more posts by Lisa

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates straight to your inbox.