How To Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

What is Marriage and Family Therapy?

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) perform a variety of clinical services for mental health issues, psychological concerns and interpersonal relationships.

MFTs receive comprehensive training in family counseling and individual psychotherapy models. Trained in listening, assessing and demonstrating practical interventions to improve quality of life and relationships, they routinely help individuals, families, couples and groups.

In essence, MFTs apply psychotherapeutic techniques to foster growth and satisfaction within intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics.

What does a Marriage and Family Therapist do?

MFTs have the following qualifications and typical job descriptions:

  • Providing therapeutic services to individuals, couples and families seeking help, change or overall improvement in life satisfaction
  • Identifying key concerns within the intrapersonal or interpersonal systems to facilitate change
  • Diagnosing, assessing and providing crisis interventions as needed
  • Facilitating group therapies and promoting psychoeducation
  • Coordinating treatment care with other professionals including psychologists, medical doctors, teachers, dietitians and case managers
  • Performing necessary intake, treatment plan, assessment and discharge documentation for client caseloads

According to the AAMFT, MFTs tend to provide brief, specific, and focused therapy. AAMFT also notes that short-term clinical treatment is common, with 65% of therapies concluding within 20 sessions and 87.9% concluding in 50 sessions. As mental health awareness and destigmatization of therapy continue to improve, at any given time MFTs are treating over 1.8 million Americans.

How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist

To pursue a career in marriage and family therapy, some students choose to obtain a master's in marriage and family therapy. There are alternative pathways, such as completing coursework focused on psychotherapeutic theory and pursuing clinical graduate and postgraduate supervised hours of practice.

While some individuals major in psychology during their undergraduate studies, therapists come from all different backgrounds and areas of study. In fact, a growing number of therapists enter this field as a second career.

Both private and public universities offer Marriage and Family Therapy programs. Prospective therapists should consider Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) or Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) approved schools during their application process, as these accreditations provide specific quality standards and may increase employment opportunities after graduation.

Marriage and Family Therapy programs typically focus on the following:

  • Counseling theory
  • Clinical interventions and applications
  • Law and ethics
  • Multicultural competence
  • Specific populations: Families, couples, LGBTQ, children and adolescents, elderly, domestic violence, support groups
  • Specific issues: mood and anxiety disorders, chemical dependency, personality disorders, eating disorders, trauma and grief, spirituality, human sexuality

As students progress through school, they intern as training therapists in approved clinical sites. At this time, all training therapists receive individual or group supervision to review client conceptualizations, therapeutic interventions and standard of care. Furthermore, supervision helps increase awareness about therapist strengths and weaknesses, personal biases and areas of attention that may necessitate more training.

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Licensure Requirements for Marriage and Family Therapists

While each state differs in its specific requirements and guidelines for licensure, therapists must typically complete documented hours, ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 in providing clinical services under an approved supervisor who is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist, Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, or Licensed Psychologist. To receive licensure, therapists must complete all necessary education courses, clinical hours, and pass the individual state board exams.

Once licensed, MFTs must adhere to all regulations outlined by their board and accrue continuing education units (CEUs) to maintain active status within their roles.

Certification Requirements for Marriage and Family Therapists

Like many other professional careers, MFTs can choose from numerous certificates, workshops and advanced trainings to enhance their career outlook and professional expertise. Engaging in extended learning may be to acquire knowledge in evidence-based practices, specialize in a particular niche or population or fulfill certain job requirements.

Such examples in certification include the following:

Career Outlook for Marriage and Family Therapists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 36,960 employed MFTs in 2016, and job prospects remain positive for the future. In fact, the projected percent change in employment from 2014 to 2024 is estimated at 19%, higher than the national average of seven percent. Health insurance reforms and expanded insurance coverage for mental health coverage likely impact this increase.

The MFT career tends to be both flexible and versatile in terms of employment industries. Typical workplaces may include the following:

  • Mental health clinics
  • Outpatient care centers
  • State government
  • Military or VA settings
  • Religious organizations
  • General medical hospitals
  • Offices of other health care professionals
  • Private practice
  • Residential care facilities
  • State-funded clinics and services
  • Public or private schools and universities

Presently, the highest concentration of jobs is in New Jersey, West Virginia, California, Arizona, and Delaware, with metropolitan, urban areas having the highest saturation of available positions. The mean annual salary for an MFT is $54,090. On average, elementary and secondary school positions pay the highest at an annual average of $79,440 and residential care facilities typically pay the lowest at $45,290 per year. The highest paying states are presently in New Jersey, Alaska, Arizona, Maine, and Hawaii.