Do You Need a Referral To See a Therapist?

Monday, May 1 2023

Do you need a referral to see a therapist?

Between 2019 and 2021, the number of adults receiving mental health treatment increased from 19.2% to 21.6%.

Part of the reason for this rise in mental health services is that mental health treatment is more accessible now than ever — even if we still have a long way to go.

Nevertheless, many people are still unaware of the steps required to see a therapist or other mental health professional. One especially common question when seeking therapy for the first time is whether or not you need a referral to see a therapist or mental health clinician.

Generally speaking, a referral from a primary care physician isn't required to schedule an appointment with a therapist or professional counselor. However, a few factors can impact this. 

To help make treatment for mental health even more accessible, we'll discuss everything you need to know about scheduling an appointment with a therapist and when a referral is (and isn't) required.

Do you have to be diagnosed to see a therapist?

Some pathways to seeing a therapist can begin with a diagnosis from a primary care provider. If a person is diagnosed with a mental, developmental, or psychiatric health condition, a referral to meet with a psychiatrist is often the next step.

However, you don't have to be diagnosed with any specific condition to see a therapist. In fact, many mental health conditions are challenging to diagnose with a single examination, particularly for primary care providers not specifically trained in mental health treatment. 

Factors that determine if a referral is necessary

In most cases, patients have direct access to therapy services, meaning they can schedule an appointment directly with a therapist without needing a referral. However, there are some instances where a referral is needed. Below, we'll explore the factors that sometimes impact whether a referral is required. 

Health insurance

A referral isn’t usually required to see a therapist, but a referral from a medical doctor may be necessary if you want your insurance provider to cover the visit. There are a lot of different insurance companies and plans on the market, and a lot of variation in coverage and requirements between them. 

But in most cases, health insurance providers will require a clinician referral before covering visits with any specialist — including mental health professionals.

Insurance coverage for mental health treatment can sometimes be a tricky world to navigate. If you aren't sure what services your insurance plan covers or whether a referral is required, be sure to contact your insurance provider before scheduling an appointment with a therapist.


All 50 states have approved direct access to medical services. But with mental health services, it isn't quite so cut and dry. Requirements regarding whether a referral is required to visit with a psychiatrist or therapist can sometimes vary between locations, so be sure to check the regulations in your state.

Practitioner requirements

There are several types of mental health clinicians, and some are more likely to require a referral than others. Patients can almost always meet with therapists and psychologists without needing a referral. However, a referral will probably be required if you want to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist.

The next section will discuss the distinctions between these different types of mental health professionals. But for now, know that referral requirements can vary depending on the type of clinician you want to make an appointment with — and can sometimes even vary from one provider to another.

Understanding the role of psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists

There are three main categories of clinicians in the mental health field — psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists — and understanding the difference between them is an important place to begin your mental wellness journey.


To practice psychiatry, a mental health professional must complete medical school and earn a doctoral degree. The biggest difference between psychiatrists, therapists, and psychologists is that psychiatrists are authorized to prescribe medication. This is one of the things that therapists and other mental health professionals are not allowed to do.

Psychiatrists do not usually provide psychotherapy and, instead, primarily focus on prescribing and monitoring medications. For this reason, appointments with psychiatrists tend to occur less frequently than the regular therapy provided by therapists, and a referral is usually required to meet with a psychiatrist.


Psychologists and therapists are two terms that are often used interchangeably, and the professions do share a lot of similarities. The biggest difference between the two is that psychologists are required to have either PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy) in a field of psychology or a PsyD (Doctorate of Psychology) and can conduct research in the field of psychology. 

But beyond this, psychologists provide many of the same services as therapists, including cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and other forms of talk therapy.


Professional therapists must hold at least a master's degree before acquiring their license to practice therapy, though it isn't uncommon for therapists to have a doctoral degree. 

There is a wide range of subcategories that therapists can fall under, from marriage and family therapists to substance abuse therapists to pediatric therapists. Unlike psychiatrists, therapists are not authorized to prescribe medication, and seeing one generally doesn't require a referral.

How to start seeing a therapist

Thanks to an ongoing push to make mental health services more accessible and the rise of telehealth platforms, seeing a therapist is now easier than ever. Here's what you need to do to schedule an appointment with a therapist and begin your journey toward better mental health.

Start with your insurance

Researching what mental health services your insurance provider covers and its requirements for coverage are important first steps toward meeting with a therapist. 

Unless you plan to pay for your treatment out of pocket, be sure to contact your insurance company in advance so there won't be any surprises when it comes time to pay the bill.

Meet with your primary care doctor

Even if a referral isn’t required for you to see a therapist, meeting with your primary care doctor is still a great way to start to process. Your primary care doctor will be able to help you understand the treatment options available to you and can help you navigate what comes next. 

And, if you do happen to need a referral to see a therapist due to your location or insurance plan, your primary care doctor can provide one.

Connect with providers on a telehealth platform

The popularity of telehealth services (health care services provided entirely online) has skyrocketed in recent years. The CDC states that 37% of U.S. adults used telemedicine in 2021. From avoiding long waiting lists and costly emergency room visits to making treatment for mental health conditions more accessible to underserved communities, telehealth offers several distinct advantages.

Telemedicine has been especially advantageous in making mental health treatment more accessible. Unlike many physical conditions, most mental health conditions do not require a physical examination to diagnose and treat, making telehealth platforms an obvious choice for mental health services. 

One of the most significant benefits of SonderMind is the flexibility to see a therapist online or in person, depending on your preferences.

Connect with providers with SonderMind 

SonderMind is on a mission to improve mental health access, utilization and outcomes. We’ll first ask you a few questions about your preferences, then SonderMind will pair you with therapists based on your responses. Once you've found the right therapist, scheduling an online or in-person appointment is as simple as a few clicks of your mouse!

If you want to take charge of your mental well-being and begin your journey to a healthier life, match with a SonderMind therapist today.

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