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Free and Low-Cost Counseling for Veterans and Active-Duty Military Service Members

Free and Low-Cost Counseling for Veterans and Active-Duty Military Service Members

Since the mid-2000s, veterans have been seeking counseling and other mental health services in greater numbers. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reported a 40 percent increase in the number of veterans seeking mental health care at the Greater Los Angeles VA Health System from 2007 to 2013. This statistic was in keeping with the national trend of increased demand for VA services that led to the 2014 wait list scandal at the VA.

Since then, wait times have improved even as demand for mental and general healthcare services at the VA continues to rise. Sadly, even though VA response times have improved, many veterans still don't get the care they need. At OpenCounseling, we want to help change this by increasing awareness of the variety of counseling options available for active-duty military service members and veterans.

Counseling for Active-Duty Members

Special counseling options are available to active-duty service members or veterans who have been discharged from the military in the last year. Military OneSource and Military and Family Life Counseling (MFLC) are DoD programs that provide free non-medical counseling for service members and their family members.

 Through these programs, licensed counselors provide short-term face-to-face, telephone, or online counseling to address specific life issues. These services are limited to 12 free sessions per issue. Research shows that these programs successfully reduce anxiety and stress for military members and their families and improve relationship outcomes. Unfortunately, these services are only available to veterans for the first 365 days after their service has ended.

 Active-duty service members can receive counseling services from several additional sources. Installation chaplains provide pastoral counseling at military bases and combat stress control teams are made up of mental health professionals who provide mental health interventions in the field. TRICARE covers counseling services at military treatment facilities as well as civilian mental health programs that accept TRICARE. It is important to note that TRICARE only covers services that fall under the definition of medical counseling, or counseling for the purpose of treating one or more diagnosed mental health conditions.


Counseling At The VA


Veterans with diagnosed mental health conditions have many options for mental health care at the VA. The VA offers mental health treatment in many different settings, ranging from inpatient mental health care at VA hospitals to weekly outpatient therapy sessions at VA clinics or over the phone using VA telehealth services.

 If you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition or think you may have one and would like to be evaluated, you can use the facility locators on the VA Mental Health and Get Help pages. You can also use the Make the Connection Resource Locator to find counseling programs run by the VA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), or other national organizations.

 It can be trickier to get mental health care through the VA if you don't have a diagnosed mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depressive disorder (MDD). It's not impossible, however. Since 1979, the VA has operated community-based counseling centers called Vet Centers that provide readjustment counseling for veterans who have served in a combat zone or who have been exposed to other kinds of military trauma. You can read the full list of criteria for Vet Center eligibility here  and search for your nearest Vet Center here.


Counseling Outside of the VA

Some veterans choose to seek services outside of the VA. Some do not qualify for VA services or do not meet specific criteria for the mental health help available at the VA. Others do not live close to a VA facility and prefer in-person counseling to VA Telehealth Services. Some are able to be seen faster outside of the VA than inside of it. Others feel more comfortable seeking care outside of the VA due to concerns about confidentiality or for other personal reasons.

 Fortunately, veterans who need or prefer non-VA mental health services have many options. One is to use insurance to access services outside of the VA. Retired veterans with diagnosed mental health conditions who have TRICARE can use it to access mental health services at any program or provider that accepts TRICARE. Veterans who have private insurance through an employer, a spouse, or another source can choose a mental health provider who accepts that insurance plan. For veterans who don't have or want to use insurance, there are also many organizations that offer free or low-cost counseling to veterans regardless of insurance coverage.

 One relatively new option that's been getting a lot of press is the Cohen Veterans Network. This network of clinics offers free and low-cost counseling to veterans at a growing number of locations across the country. Cohen clinics guarantee immediate appointments for any veterans who are in crisis and serve any veterans regardless of how long or where they served or how they were discharged. Currently, there are Cohen Veterans Network locations in the following states:

  •  Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington


The Cohen Veterans Network plans to open more locations over time and also offers telehealth services to veterans who cannot access a clinic. Cohen Veterans Network clinics are not the only option for non-VA veteran mental health care, however. Other national organizations also offer free or low-cost counseling to veterans:

  •  The American Red Cross provides information and referral services to connect veterans with free or low-cost mental health services in their communities. They also make emergency referrals for veterans who reach out via their Hero Care app or their crisis line (877-272-7337).
  • The Camaraderie Foundation provides scholarships for free counseling to post-9/11 military veterans, active-duty service members, and their families. To access this program, people need to complete a free scholarship application form on the foundation's website.
  • Give an Hour is a volunteer program that links licensed therapists with veterans, military families, and trauma survivors who need free individual, couples, or family counseling. The hour-long counseling sessions are provided once a week for at least one year.
  • Project Headstrong provides free mental health treatment for veterans and their families at a growing number of locations nationwide. Currently, Headstrong has offices in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, DC.
  • The Soldiers' Project offers free and unlimited mental health services to post-9/11 veterans and their family members regardless of discharge status, branch of service, or combat experience. They are currently suspending services due to lack of funding but plan to resume services as soon as they find new funding sources.

 Veterans open to non-traditional treatment methods have many unique programs to choose from. Project Welcome Home Troops runs free Power Breath Meditation Workshops to teach veterans effective stress-management techniques. Reboot Combat Recovery offers a free 12-week faith-based trauma healing course. Free wilderness therapy programs for veterans include the hiking-focused Huts for Vets, No Barriers, and Warrior Expeditions programs, as well as Project Healing Waters, which offers free fly-fishing retreats for disabled veterans.


Crisis Resources for Veterans

For veterans or active-duty service members who are in crisis, local mental health crisis lines are one option for quick access to emergency care. There are also mental health crisis hotlines specifically for veterans:


  • Veterans and family members can call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 to reach the Veterans Crisis Line. This 24/7 service links veterans with the caring mental health crisis response team at the VA. The service can also be reached by texting 838255 or via online chat on the hotline's website. The crisis chat and hotline are anonymous and confidential.
  • For veterans who want to speak with a peer, the Vets4Warriors program has a peer support hotline that can be reached at 1-855-838-8255. They also have text-based and online chat support.
  • The Red Cross' emergency service referral hotline and Hero Care program can be reached at 1-877-272-7337.


Whether you need inpatient or outpatient treatment, crisis lines will help link you with the right level of care.

 What Are Some Location-Specific Options Available to Veterans Seeking Mental Health Care?

 In addition to the national organizations that serve veterans, several local programs have been established to address their mental health needs. Many were founded because the parent organization was located near a military base or in an area where many veterans live. Some of the special local programs that offer free or low-cost counseling to veterans include:


West Coast















Many of these programs were established by or in partnership with state veterans' departments. These state agencies work closely with but are independent of federal VA departments. Some state veterans' departments offer special state-funded veterans' mental health programs like the Veterans' Outreach Centers in Massachusetts and the Military Support Program in Connecticut. They also provide assistance to veterans who need help accessing VA benefits and services. Contact information for each state's veterans' department is listed below. You can call to learn whether there are special opportunities or services for veterans in your state or explore the website for your state's department to learn more.


State Veterans' Departments List


Veterans' departments in some states like Vermont collaborate with state mental health agencies and community mental health programs to provide free or low-cost care to veterans. You can call your county's mental health crisis or information line to find out if your county provides veteran-specific services or if you are otherwise eligible for public mental health services in your state. You can also inquire at your local VA, peer-run veterans' organization, or chapter of the United Way to find out if there are unique veterans' programs that serve your area.  If you're interested in faith-based therapy, many local and national non-profits offer faith-based programs, and free pastoral counseling may also be available at local churches and religious organizations.


Why Are More Service Members and Veterans Seeking Counseling?


Research shows that post-9/11 veterans seek mental health care sooner than their peers. Due to the duration of post-9/11 military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, longer deployment periods, and higher rates of redeployment than in earlier conflicts, post-9/11 veterans have high rates of mental health complications. They have an 18 percent higher survival rate than veterans of earlier wars, in part because they survive severe injuries in greater numbers. Many post-9/11 veterans come home with "polytrauma," or traumatic brain injury (TBI) compounded by other physical and psychological trauma.

 It isn't just newer veterans experiencing rising rates of trauma-related conditions, however—research shows that all combat veterans have high rates of mental health issues in later life. Veterans of all wars have come home bearing the invisible wounds of war trauma. Since World War I, psychologists' understanding of trauma-related conditions has steadily improved, and more and more counselors and mental health programs are offering effective trauma-informed care, from the VA to veteran-focused programs at civilian-run mental health organizations.

Sometimes, the biggest barriers to counseling are geographic. When the closest provider is a long drive away, commute time and fuel expenses can render counseling difficult, if not impossible to access. When geographic barriers are an issue, online counseling is a great option. In addition to telehealth services available at the VA and organizations like the Cohen Veterans Network, you can get affordable online counseling from BetterHelp (a sponsor).


If you are an active-duty service member, veteran, or family member, you don't have to face the challenges of life alone. Help is closer and more accessible than you think. With the right support, you can get through life's challenges, heal from stress and trauma, and build the life you deserve.

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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 10/20/2019 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

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 masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.