Tips For Finding An Off-Campus Counselor

When students are referred to the local community for psychotherapy, they often have questions about how to find a therapist, navigating health insurance, and making the first appointment. Below are a few guidelines to help you.


  • Mental Health Counselors and Clinical Social Workers have a master's or doctorate degree.
  • Psychologists have a doctorate in clinical or counseling psychology.
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are able to prescribe medications and are specialists in the use of medication to treat emotional distress.
  • The particular degree a counselor has may not matter as much as the "fit" you have with him or her. Licensure, however, is important.

License, Expertise, and Specialization

  • Be sure the counselor you are seeing is licensed by the State of Washington to practice his/her profession. To verify a license, go to Washington State Department of Health website.
  • Feel free to ask a counselor about his/her training, licensure, and expertise.
  • If you are seeking therapy for a specific condition, such as eating disorders, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or trauma, ask the counselor about his/her experience in that area.

Will health insurance cover the cost of psychotherapy?

Health insurance may cover mental health treatment, depending on your particular plan. You may need a referral from your primary care physician or you may be free to seek a referral on your own. If a managed care company, or HMO, or PPO manages your health insurance, you will likely pay a smaller co-payment if you see a clinician on their list of preferred providers.

In order to determine your health insurance benefits, call the customer service number on the back of your insurance card. The number to call will be listed as customer service, or behavioral health, or mental health services. When seeking pre-approval for services from the insurance company, you may be asked a few questions, such as whether or not you are suicidal, if you have been in counseling before, and why you are seeking treatment. The case manager will then give you a list of several therapists in the community.

Tell the counselor the name of your insurance plan.  If you are not covered by insurance, some counselors may offer a sliding fee scale based on income.  Ask about their fee and whether they are able to negotiate.

Contacting Counselors

If you have been given names of counselors in the community (sometimes referred to as off-campus referrals) and have checked to be sure of your insurance coverage, the next step is to contact the counselor(s) you might see. In many cases the counselor will call you back after you leave a message.

When you talk with the counselor on the phone, be prepared to give a few sentences describing why you are seeking counseling. For example, "I have been feeling depressed and it is affecting my studies and my relationships." Be as specific about your concerns as you can, especially if you are dealing with disordered eating, substance use issues, or a specific kind of anxiety, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Ask the counselor if they have any openings to see a new client. If so, ask about his/her experience and approach in dealing with your type of concern. If the counselor does not have any openings, you can ask if your name can be added to a waiting list.

Setting up an Appointment

If you feel comfortable with the answers you have received from the counselor, set up an appointment. If your insurance plan requires that you get a referral from your primary care physician, contact your doctor to explain that you are seeking counseling and need a referral for your insurance coverage.

Meeting the Counselor for the First Time

The counselor will probably ask you some standard questions about your concerns in the first meeting. If you have seen a counselor previously you can sign a "release of information" which allows your previous counselor to communicate with your new counselor.

If you have had therapy before and found some approaches to be especially helpful or not helpful to you, that is good information to share with the new counselor.

For example, if you like to have lots of specific suggestions on how you can do things differently or prefer that the counselor not give so many suggestions but let you have space to talk about your concerns more freely, or a combination of these things, let the counselor know what is likely to be most helpful to you.

If after having some meetings with the counselor you feel he/she is not a good fit for you, it is fine to discuss your concerns with him or her. Counselors can sometimes alter their approaches. You may also decide that this counselor is not right for you and you may choose to see someone else.

Page Updated 04.08.2016