Handling a Therapy Waitlist: Strategies and Alternatives
In our article, “Eight Things to Do Before Your First Therapy Session,” we covered what to do when you’ve made an appointment with a therapist and have to wait a few weeks for your first session. But what do you do when the wait is even longer than that?
When a therapist tells you that they can’t see any new clients for months, you might feel like you have no choice but to wait, especially if you’ve already called other therapists with similarly long waitlists or who weren’t accepting new clients.
You may be able to find a private-practice therapist with similar expertise who doesn’t have a waiting list, get a referral from a mental health hotline to an agency with immediate openings, or start online counseling right away.
In this article, we share our tips on how you can get into therapy faster when the therapist you wanted to see isn’t available.
Don't give up.
It takes courage, effort, and persistence to recognize that you need therapy, to research your local options, and to reach out to a therapist.
So, it can be discouraging when you finally call to make an appointment, only to find out the therapist you so carefully chose has a really long waitlist or isn’t taking new clients.
When this happens, you might feel like it’s a sign you’ll never get the help you need, but that isn’t true. Don’t give up! You’ve cleared nearly all of the hurdles to starting therapy, and you can get over this last one. The first thing you can do is talk to the therapist you’ve just called.
First Things First: Decide How Long You're Willing to Wait
How long is too long to wait depends on you and your particular situation. For many people, anywhere from a week to a month is an acceptable amount of time to wait to see a therapist.
However, even that may be too much time if you’re in crisis or feel like you’re on the verge of one. (If you’re in crisis, therapy may not be enough. We recommend calling a national mental health hotline or a state or local crisis line first to see if you need a higher level of care than therapy.)
On the other hand, if you think you’ve found the perfect therapist, aren’t in crisis, and have been thinking about starting therapy for years, it might not be that big a deal to wait to get in to see a therapist who’s just the right match. You might be willing to wait for up to six months, or even longer.
When deciding how long you’re willing to wait, consider the following:
- How severe your symptoms or concerns are
- How urgently you think you need to start therapy
- How long you’ve been contemplating going to therapy
- How long you’ve been looking for a therapist and how many other therapists you’ve called
- How specific your needs and preferences are and how well the therapist you’ve found matches them
Ultimately, only you can know how long is too long to wait. In our experience, waiting more than three to six months puts you at risk of never making it to that first session, because so much can change in that amount of time. But it’s possible you could wait that long—or even longer—and have it work out just fine.
Therapists want to help, and the therapist you’ve called may be able to give you immediate alternatives if they have a long waiting list or aren’t taking new clients right now.
They may be able to refer you to a colleague, give you a list of affordable agencies in the area, or help you figure out if there’s things you can do for your mental health on your own that can help you get through the waiting period.
Leverage the inroads you've made.
It’s not rude to tell a therapist you can’t wait months for your first therapy appointment. Most therapists don’t like having to turn you away or ask you to wait and won’t be offended if you’d rather see someone else.
Ask the therapist or their front desk staff if they can recommend other therapists or agencies in the area. Many therapists are part of local professional networks and have colleagues to whom they refer clients they can’t accommodate. Many keep printed lists of local providers they can give you. They may even know someone who’s a better fit for your needs than they would have been!
But if the therapist you’re talking to isn’t much help, don’t despair. Try calling a state or local mental health crisis or information line to ask for help with affordable therapy referrals. You’re already well into the process of finding a therapist and the next call you make might just get you where you need to be.
Carefully consider which options fit your needs and budget.
It’s easy to get swept up in the romance of reading therapists’ profiles and imagining there’s someone out there who’s a perfect match for you. But this can get you blocked, frustrated, or stuck in your search.
We’ll be the first to say that it is important to find a therapist who’s the right match. But as the old saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” A good match is usually good enough.
Some things are worth insisting upon. If you want to process or heal from trauma, for example, it’s important to find a therapist with relevant expertise, ideally someone who is trained in one or more trauma-informed therapy methods. And you want to make sure your therapist is a good fit in terms of the types of clients they have experience working with, the method they use, their personality, and their background.
So, if you’ve seen therapists before and know what does and doesn’t work for you, we encourage you to use that knowledge to choose your next therapist and to be as picky and specific as you need to be. But if you’re just starting out in therapy and aren’t sure what kind of therapist you should see, we encourage you not to overthink it.
Most therapists use methods that can effectively address a wide range of mental health issues. If you want to work with someone who can help you change your habits, alleviate symptoms of anxiety or depression, address relationship conflicts, or understand yourself a little better, there are many therapists who can meet your needs.
If you're in crisis, call a local, state, or national crisis line.
If you’re in crisis, it’s important not to wait to get help. If you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, or otherwise don’t feel psychologically safe, tell someone. Most people in the mental health field will know what to do.
In addition to national and international hotlines you can call, there are many states with regional or local mental health crisis lines. Any hotline can help connect you with the right resources, but the people who answer local crisis lines are often more knowledgeable about mental health services in your area and are better equipped to quickly make local referrals.
Where to Call in Your State
Our page about the public mental health system in your state includes information about which crisis or referral line you should call based on where you live. We have pages for the public mental health system in every state in the US (as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico). Just click here and select your state from the list to find out more about your local system.
In order to receive federal funding, states are required to provide essential mental health safety net services including crisis intervention, so every state has a mental health crisis system in place.
The people who answer crisis lines and hotlines are trained to listen, provide immediate support, transfer you to emergency services when needed, and help you set up appointments when you don’t need to see someone immediately. Crisis lines can be good resources even if you’re not in crisis, as they often serve as local mental health referral and information lines as well.
Consider trying online therapy.
Many people hesitate to try online counseling out of concern it isn’t as “real” or as effective as seeing someone in person. However, while there are advantages to seeing a therapist face-to-face, they’re subtle, and for many people, the pros of online therapy outweigh the pros of in-person therapy.
Online therapy platforms are set up to quickly link people with therapists and rarely have wait times. Another unique advantage they have is how easy it is to change therapists. If the first therapist you try isn’t a good match, you can simply ask to change therapists and be assigned to someone new.
Research shows that online therapy works as well as therapy provided in traditional settings. This makes it an excellent option when local resources are limited. We’ve also tried online therapy for ourselves at OpenCounseling and can attest that it’s been helpful and powerful for us!
When you can’t find the right person locally, it might be a sign that the right therapist is waiting for you online. If you’re ready for therapy and have a good internet connection, consider trying BetterHelp (a sponsor) or a local therapist who offers online sessions. The right therapist may only be a click away!
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.