Mental health: how to access free or low-cost therapy and counselling - and best alternatives

Talking therapies can help with common mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression

Accessing therapy can be an important step on a person’s journey to getting help and support for mental health issues.

But for those who find themselves on a potentially long NHS waiting list, or facing expensive bills for private therapy, there’s a range of low-cost - or even free - options out there.

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Talking therapies

Talking therapies - also known as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) - are free, confidential treatments delivered by fully trained and accredited NHS practitioners, and can help with common mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Anyone over the age of 18 can access talking therapies on the NHS, and either a GP can refer you or you can refer yourself directly.

The therapy you are offered depends on which one has been shown to be most helpful for your symptoms, but can include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), guided self-help and counselling.

If your first language is not English, talking therapies can be delivered in your chosen language through multi-lingual therapists or confidential translators, the NHS explains.

Your local Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, or local Turning Point branch may also be able to offer you talking therapies.

Children and young people who are not able to access adult talking therapies can get support with mental and emotional problems from their local children and young people's mental health service (CYPMHS).

Where else can I access free or low-cost therapy or counselling?

There are a number of other places that offer free or reduced-cost therapy or counselling. These include:

- Mental Health Matters (MHM) offers a telephone counselling service and talking therapies in some areas.

- Anxiety UK offers talking therapies for anxiety. There is a fee , but they do offer reduced costs for people on a low income.

- Cruse Bereavement Care may offer free counselling services if you have experienced the death of someone close to you.

- Rape Crisis centres offer counselling to survivors of sexual abuse and sometimes to their families.

Your workplace may also offer an Employee Assistance Programme, which might provide a limited number of free therapy sessions. You can usually access this without going through your manager, HR department or GP.

Most colleges and universities also offer free counselling to students. You can usually access this without going through your academic tutors or GP.

You can also access expert advice and practical tips on the Every Mind Matters website, which offers expert advice to help improve your wellbeing, as well as practical tips on sleep, coping with money worries, and self-care.

You can also find a number of mental health apps and tools in the NHS apps library.

Alternatives to therapy

Mental Health charity Mind notes that therapy helpful may not be useful for everyone. If therapy isn't right for you just now, you're currently on a waiting list, or would just like more options to explore, you could also try:

- Self-help books - your GP might recommend particular titles from a Reading Well scheme called 'Books on Prescription'. This scheme is supported by most local libraries, but you don't need a prescription from a doctor.

- Peer support - this brings people together who've shared similar experiences and can empathise with what you're going through.

- Ecotherapy - includes a wide range of programmes which focus on incorporating nature into therapeutic activities, such as gardening, being outdoors or working with animals.

- Complementary and alternative therapies - include options such as yoga, massage, meditation and herbal remedies.

- Medication - there are different medications your doctor might offer to prescribe you which can help reduce the symptoms of different mental health problems. You might sometimes be offered medication alongside therapy.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call a local NHS mental health helpline for 24-hour advice and support.

You can call for yourself, your child, your parent or someone you care for.

The NHS website also says that if someone's life is at risk or they cannot be kept safe, you should call 999 or go to A&E.