Marriage and Family Therapists vs. Clinical Social Workers

Marriage and family therapists and clinical social workers are both considered mental health practitioners. Although the two disciplines grew out of different traditions, there is a fair amount of overlap in their scope of practice.

Both marriage and family therapy and clinical social work approach mental health from a broad environmental perspective. Social work takes a person-in-environment model; this perspective covers interactions with everyone from employers and educators to society as a whole. Clinical social workers, termed LCSWs in many states, may work with families who are under stress or in crisis. They typically provide more counseling, and do less casework, than their nonclinical counterparts; this could include providing psychotherapy in a relational context.

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  • Grand Canyon University (GCU) offers a variety of Master’s programs in Mental Health Counseling including an online M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Marriage and Family Therapy and an online Post-M.S. in Counseling: Marriage and Family Therapy Certificate. Each state has specific education requirements as they pertain to MFT licensure. Confirm with your state that this program will meet licensure requirements. Click here to learn more about the GCU programs and course descriptions.
  • Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) offers a CACREP accredited online Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Click here to learn about the psychology and counseling programs at SNHU.
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  • University of West Alabama offers a Master's of Science in Family Counseling as well as several additional Master's programs and a Bachelor's in Psychology undergraduate option. Graduates are prepared to pursue positions in counseling, research, education and other industries. Click here to learn about the University of West Alabama and their programs.
41% growth in marriage and family therapy jobs & 31% growth in mental health and substance abuse social work jobs ~ BLS Data

Clinical social workers are employed in a wider variety of settings and roles. Clinical social work includes not only mental health therapy but also many services performed in medical settings. The social worker may, for example, plan for patient discharge, making sure that things like social services or employment modifications are in place.

As for marriage and family therapists, they are, as the websites of some divisions of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy proclaim, the “relationship experts”. Marriage and family therapy is approached from a systemic perspective and typically focuses on familial and other close relationships.

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Both marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) and clinical social workers routinely deal with the impact of alcoholism and mental illness. Both work in a variety of settings, including private practice. Clinical social workers are more likely to be employed at hospitals.

Education and Training

LCSWs have broader training, LMFTs, more specialized training. Most states have specific coursework requirements for marriage and family therapists. Requirements include multiple courses in MFT models and therapy techniques and multiple courses in family studies; the latter may cover blended and multi-ethnic families and families in transition or crisis.

State licensing agencies typically require that social workers complete graduate programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). While some states specify that the program have a clinical focus or mandate a minimum number of clinical courses, this is by no means universal. The type of social work a licensee is authorized to do is sometimes tied to the duties she performs as part of post-graduate practice. Social work programs are widely varied, and individuals report varying degrees of satisfaction when it comes to preparedness to carry out psychotherapy. An individual interested in doing psychotherapy may want to make a careful study of social work programs instead of assuming that all accredited programs will cover similar material.

Both marriage and family therapy and clinical social work approach mental health from a broad environmental perspective.

Professionals in both disciplines are generally required to put in two years of supervised practice. The requirements are set at the state level. Social workers typically put in 3,000 hours of work experience before attaining a professional license. Some states specify the total work experience hours an LMFT must have. Most specify the number of clinical or psychotherapy hours that must be accrued; generally, at least half the required hours must be spent providing services to couples or families.

Salary and Career Outlook

Clinical social work is a broad field that encompasses more than one occupational group. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted 31% growth in mental health and substance abuse social work jobs and 34% growth in healthcare social work jobs between 2010 and 2020. Healthcare social workers had mean annual salaries of $51,460 in May 2012; the mean for mental health and substance abuse social workers was $43,340.

The BLS has predicted 41% growth in marriage and family therapy jobs between 2010 and 2020. The average salary was $49,270 in May 2012.

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Social work is an older profession and has a higher level of trust or esteem in some circles. However, it’s important to realize that perceptions that perceptions vary from setting to setting – and that they change as a profession becomes more established.

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