Marriage and Family Therapists vs. Mental Health Counselors
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.
- 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.
- Capella University offers an online MS in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program that is accredited by COAMFTE (Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education). The curriculum incorporates current MFT education standards and is designed to help you prepare to pursue state licensure eligibility. Click here to contact Capella University and request information about their program.
- Pepperdine University offers an online Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program designed to prepare students for licensure in their state. Click here to learn more.
- 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.
- 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.
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. 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.
Salary and Career Outlook
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.
State by State Variability in Practice
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.
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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