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There are a lot of similarities between marriage and family therapists and clinical or mental health counselors -- so many, in fact, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics groups the two together. Both are master's level mental health professionals. Both are qualified to diagnose and treat mental conditions.
However, marriage and family therapy and mental health counseling are two different disciplines. Educational programs are similar in length but take a different theoretical approach. The University of Oregon notes that historically, professional counseling developed from guidance counseling while MFT grew from psychology.
Both disciplines have come a long way from their origins – and both have educational and training requirements that are set higher than they once were.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs or LCPCs) both complete two year master's programs; programs are typically 60 semester hours. A majority of state licensing agencies require or prefer MFT candidates to complete programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). Programs include atypical and typical human development, couple and family studies, and MFT therapies.
The preferred accreditation for professional counseling programs is the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs (CACREP). Counseling programs include some coursework in group work and career counseling as well as mental health.
Graduates in either discipline must practice under supervision for a specified period after graduation; requirements are set by the state, but are roughly comparable. For marriage and family therapists, the requirement is generally two years. Marriage and family therapists are usually expected to do at least half their clinical hours with couples or families. Some states stipulate that all therapy should be performed from a 'systemic theory' even if there is only one client present in therapy sessions. Mental health counselors typically put in 2,000 to 4,000 experience hours; this usually takes at least two years.
Marriage and family therapists are required to take a licensing exam at some point before their professional license is issued. Mental health counselors may take either one or two licensing exams, depending on the state of licensing.
Career outlook and salaries are comparable. The average annual salary for a mental health counselor was $43,290 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The profession has been projected to see 36% growth between 2010 and 2020, with the total number employed increasing by 43,600 (from 120,300 to 163,900).
The average salary for a marriage and family therapists was $49,270 in 2012. The profession has been projected to see 41% growth, with the number employed increasing by 14,800.
Some state boards note that a professional counselor does not need to get a new license to provide couple or family services, provided she isn’t leading the public to believe that she is a marriage and family therapist. While there is theoretically a lot of overlap in the scope of LMFTs and LCPCs, this isn’t always the case in actual practice. There are a lot of different treatment modalities, but mental health professionals are legally and ethically bound to practice within the scope of their training. In most cases, a mental health counselor will not be qualified to provide all the therapies she would if she had completed a degree in MFT.
Differences between licensing requirements for the two professions vary by state. A particular state may set particularly stringent curriculum requirements or set supervised practice requirements higher or lower than the norm. Practitioners sometimes advise students that in their particular state, one license is easier to acquire than the other.
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