An acquaintance recently asked me to recommend a suitable marriage counselor for her. I gave her the names of some trusted colleagues but warned her that they work in private practice, so it was going to cost. I also offered to look at the list of those who accept her insurance, to let her know if any names looked familiar. She opted to call the private names first. This friend and her husband are hard-working professionals, but they have significant expenses and not unlimited funds. When she heard their hourly rates, she echoed the frustrated sentiments of so many clients and would-be clients: Why does therapy have to be so expensive?
The short answer is: It doesn’t.
But of course, there’s a lot more to it.
It can be terribly frustrating to do the legwork of finding names and making nerve-wracking calls, only to find out that the help one seeks is unattainably beyond budget. I’ve even heard some go as far as to bitterly suggest that it is “unethical” or “greedy” for professionals to charge such high fees for their time.
So, I thought it might be helpful to publicly shed some light on this common grievance.
The single most important piece of information for the therapy-consumer to know is that therapy need not cost a fortune. Licensed psychotherapy by a trained therapist for a diagnosable problem is available on most health insurance plans, and in many clinics and agencies for a fraction of the cost of private therapy. Any potential client should know this or be apprised of this when exploring his options.
If this is true, why would someone opt to see a pricier professional?
It really boils down to the basic economics of any good or service industry, but here are some of the mechanics of how it works in this field:
Some people are willing, or even prefer to spend more if the therapist was recommended by someone they trust—such as a referral service, a friend who had a good experience with that therapist, or a mentor who knows both parties well. Therapy is a deeply personal experience and requires a significant investment of time and trust, so some people feel more comfortable working with a recommended and endorsed clinician.
Sometimes clients have seen a particular therapist lecture at an event, or on video, or have read their written material, and felt that the content, wavelength, and style resonated with their personalities, and the therapeutic work they are seeking to do.
Other times, they want to see someone with expertise or advanced training in a specific subfield so they would invest in a specialized practitioner, rather than a more general clinician.
Another motivation, for some clients, is the perception that more expensive means better—more experienced, more talented, or at least more exclusive. Sort of like “designer therapy.” (Whether this is actually true or not is debatable, and probably varies extensively by situation and each professional.)
But many clients and prospective clients feel resentful or aggravated by the fact that therapists “have the nerve to charge so much.”
In truth, most rates are set by the interactive natural laws of a free market and human nature. For example, you can buy a dress for $10, $100, $1000 or more. Some consumers may believe they are getting more durable, beautiful, or finer merchandise for the higher price tag. Others may believe that high-end couture is a rip-off and see no correlation between price and quality. Either way, we generally have a range of fees and prices we can choose to pay for any particular product. This is true of almost any good or service. Sometimes you get what you pay for, and other times it’s entirely unnecessary to splurge on a name brand to get good quality.
In a utopian world, maybe we would all have enough knowledge and money to get whatever goods or services we need or want, in whatever quantity or quality we desire. That would (probably) be great. But in reality, we have constraints—time, money, geography and availability. Yet there is usually some variety and selection for nearly any purchase. We live in a country and in communities where almost everyone can access some form of medical and mental health care when needed, even without funds or health insurance.
We tend to prioritize our spending. I’ve seen families pay for schooling, summer programs, housing, and simchahs that they objectively could absolutely not afford, but they do it because it was something they felt they needed or wanted to do, as per their communal norms or social status. Conversely, I’ve seen wealthy individuals opt out of expenditures they could easily afford because they simply decided it wasn’t worth it to them. These are the choices we make, and we are free to make them as we see fit, based on our values and finances.
I’ve seen clients who took money out of savings accounts, or even borrowed funds because it was important to them to see a specific clinician. (When I get these calls, I always emphasize to these clients that there are less expensive ways to get therapy and offer them names of colleagues and clinics.)
Now, from the other perspective: Why would a therapist “have the chutzpah” to charge a high rate for his or her time?
Well, it’s mostly supply and demand. With real estate, for example, your home may have an official “estimated value” but in real life, your house, product, service, or time is essentially worth whatever others are willing to pay for it. If a new, unknown therapist were to hang out a shingle and start charging $500 an hour, he would probably attract a total of zero clients.
On the other hand, consider a seasoned practitioner who has earned a strong reputation, invested in ongoing training and supervision, and perhaps lectured, published, or been involved in communal advocacy. If she initially accepts a modest salary or sets affordable fees, she may have the good fortune to be promoted at work or to join a strong practice. She may be willing to see clients through insurance, or with a sliding scale rate, out of kindness or to fill her schedule or both. Once she has more incoming calls than available hours, then from an entrepreneurial perspective, it’s time to raise the rates. As she accepts new clients and graduates the earlier ones, her reputation builds and her overall value increases. As long as those slots are filling, she can continually raise rates—that’s how business works. It could be considered cruel or elitist, except for the fact that for every professional who grows to prohibitively expensive success, there are plenty of other up-and-coming clinicians who are also trained, licensed, and more than willing to help, for lower fees. Most professionals, no matter the field, understand the importance of investing in education and working hard at low-paying, entry-level jobs, to gain experience, build credibility, and ultimately earn the privileges of promotion or eventual self-employment. We call that paying our dues. Therapy is no different from other industries in that way. Capitalism motivates providers to strive for excellence, and consumers to reward skill. The ambitious pursue professional growth.
But sometimes reality can be hard to swallow. One frustrated acquaintance grumbled, “I don’t understand why exorbitantly-priced therapists think it’s ok to discriminate against people who can’t afford their high rates!” To me, that sounded something like the single guy who says: “I don’t understand why all the pretty girls whom I would date, think it’s ok to discriminate against guys like me just because I’m not good looking!” The “not-good-looking-guy” himself is discriminating against “less-pretty” girls and then expressing righteous indignation at others for doing the exact same thing. Likewise, this consumer is “discriminating” against more affordable therapists, snubbing their work by assuming that more expensive automatically means better, and then getting upset that this very criterion then prices him out. It’s a vicious cycle that can be pithily summed up by Groucho Marx’s famous quote: “I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”
Similarly, I remember once apologizing to a potential client for not having any openings at his requested time. He responded, tongue-in-cheek, “I would hope not; I don’t want to see someone who isn’t full.” (We scheduled for the following month.)
As self-educating consumers, our job is to research the practitioners not only by “what people say” informally but with more sophisticated, discerning analysis. Some therapists may technically be considered more exclusive but are not necessarily the best suited to a given case. One could also make a case that a lesser known professional can sometimes be more respectful, humble, and accessible than higher profile ones. They may have more time, flexibility, attention, and genuine interest to offer their new clients than those who are busier and more established.
I generally recommend trying an impartial referral service and doing an online name search. Aside from our own professional websites, many clinicians will have client reviews, books, podcasts, articles, blogs, or video lectures with their research and some therapeutic content available for public viewing. This can offer a valuable sampling of a therapist’s relational style, knowledge, and professional focus.
When making the initial call, it is also reasonable and appropriate to ask the therapist or practice representative some pertinent questions about their practice and policies before scheduling a session, to determine whether what they offer is suitable to your needs.
As far as negotiation: Some professionals don’t appreciate the question, but I personally don’t mind when new clients (politely) ask about the possibility of a sliding scale rate. (I happen not to offer one to new clients at this time, but I believe it’s a legitimate request.) Most therapists I know “give back” to the community in some way by having some low-cost clients, trainees, or lectures. But that is an individual choice; not the entitlement of any one client.
For some, it may be necessary to try more than one therapist, and sometimes even several, until they find the right fit. There is no one simple solution to the problem of finding the right therapist, especially when cost is a concern, but there are more options than many realize. Regardless of reputation, expertise, or cost, the therapy connection is person-specific, and so it will always be a matter of subjective compatibility.
This article was originally featured in Ami magazine.
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Elisheva Liss, LMFT is a psychotherapist in private practice. Her book, Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking, is available on Amazon.com. She can be reached for sessions or speaking engagements at firstname.lastname@example.org More of her content can be found at ElishevaLiss.com