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 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 help, these questions might arise in finding a therapist for college students.

Here are ways that college students can find a therapist. (Twenty20 @pratavetra_)

Finding a therapist for a college student: FAQs

How do I find a therapist?

College counseling centers are generally staffed by well-trained, seasoned clinicians who are excellent at supporting undergrads. This should be the first stop if your student is facing a crisis. Counseling centers offer walk-in appointments, are free of charge, have clinicians 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.

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

How do I locate a therapist near me?

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 from clinicians the college knows 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 student’s when connecting with the counseling center. Alternatively, use your 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 therapy am I looking for?

When seeking a psychotherapist, there are several variables for your college student to consider to secure a good fit. Does your student prefer 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 relief.
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy: This relatively new therapy aims to help clients develop healthy skills for managing complicated 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. Ensure the clinician is licensed by the state and 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 whether a clinician will be a good fit, you or your college student should ask prospective therapists if they address the concerns at hand. Some challenges call for a specialist in a particular treatment area. Let your referral sources know if your college student struggles with substance abuse, an eating disorder, or trauma.

How does confidentiality work in therapy?

Psychotherapy is like Las Vegas: what happens there stays there. Your college student can sign a consent form allowing you to speak freely with his or her clinician if you, your student, and the clinician deem that appropriate. If your son or daughter chooses 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 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 the costs and benefits of making such a call carefully.

Can I use my health insurance for therapy?

Here’s the short answer: it depends. To save yourself and your college student some trouble, call 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 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. When your son or daughter seeks psychotherapy, things are already moving in the right direction.

What about virtual appointments?

Virtual psychotherapy appointments became far more common during the pandemic and opened up a new way for college students to meet with clinicians outside their immediate area. As with in-person appointments, you will want to work with a licensed clinician recommended by a trusted source.

While the details differ by state and profession (e.g., psychologists, social workers, clinical counselors), therapists are generally required to care only for clients physically in the state where they are licensed. That said, psychologists can now apply for a national license that allows them to practice in the states that have enacted the appropriate legislation (currently 28 states and counting). It may be possible for a student who does not attend college in his or her home state to have virtual meetings with a clinician from home so long as the therapist has a cross-state license or has received permission from the relevant state boards.

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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

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