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Marriage and Family Therapists: The Friendly Mental Health Professionals

Marriage and family therapists are mental health professionals with a minimum of a master’s degree and two years supervised clinical experience. Marriage and family therapists (commonly referred to as MFTs or family therapists) are trained and licensed to independently diagnose and treat mental health and substance abuse problems. Marriage and family therapy is one of the core mental health disciplines and is based on the research and theory that mental illness and family problems are best treated in a family context. Trained in psychotherapy and family systems, marriage and family therapists focus on understanding their clients’ symptoms and interaction patterns within their existing environment. MFTs treat predominantly individuals, but also provide couples, family and group therapy. Whomever the client, Family Therapists treat from a relationship perspective that incorporates family systems.

Most mental health professionals and their clients recognize the necessity of treating mental and emotional problems within the context of the family system. Research has shown that these family-based interventions are as effective—and in many cases more effective—than alternative interventions, often at a lower cost. Studies demonstrate that family therapy is a preferred method of treatment for depression, substance abuse, alcoholism, marital problems, child problems, couple enrichment, and schizophrenia, to name a few.

Family therapy for severe mental illness is one of the most well-studied and effective interventions in the mental health literature. Family involvement—including family psychoeducation, multifamily group therapy, and family therapy—have been consistently linked to better individual and family functioning. Research on couples therapy for depression indicates that couples therapy is the treatment of choice for couples in which there is both depression and couple distress. Family therapy outcomes for severe mental illness include improved well being, fewer medical illnesses, decreased medical care utilization, and increased self-efficacy.

Family-based interventions are also effective for persons with medical problems. Treatment outcomes show improvement in the identified patient, as well as in other family members. Family therapy is particularly effective with families who are providing care to elders and to a child with a chronic illness (e.g., asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, cancer). There is also some evidence that family involvement facilitates disease prevention, demonstrating improved outcomes for weight reduction for children and cardiovascular risk.

Who are Family Therapists?

  • Licensed mental health practitioners
  • Educated with a master’s or doctoral degree 
  • Trained with a minimum of two (2) years supervised clinical experience 
  • Family-focused psychotherapists and mental health generalists 
  • One of the five core mental health professionals (along with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and psychiatric nurses) 

What Services are Provided by Family Therapists*

  • Diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disordersMFT counseling a family.
  • Individual child (15%) and adult (47%) psychotherapy 
  • Couple, family, and group therapy (38%) 
  • Treatment planning 
  • Marriage and relationship counseling 
  • Premarital education and marital enrichment 
  • Life coaching

What Disorders are Commonly Treated by Family Therapists*

  • Depression and other Affective Disorders
  • Childhood Behavioral and Emotional Disorders 
  • Marital and Relationship Problems 
  • Conduct Disorder and Delinquency 
  • Substance Abuse 
  • Alcoholism 
  • Domestic Violence 
  • Severe Mental Illness 
  • Physical Illness

Who are the Clients of Family Therapists*

  • 6.1 Million People are seen Annually by Family Therapists (2.1% of Population)
  • 2,294,728 Individuals Per Year 
  • 808,798 Children Per Year 
  • 752,370 Couples Per Year 
  • 526,659 Families Per Year 
  • 3.4% of Households have seen a MFT

What distinguishes Family Therapists from other mental health professionals?

A family orientation coupled with rigorous training requirements make Marriage and Family Therapists uniquely qualified to provide mental health services. Family Therapists are trained in various modes of therapy in order to prepare them for work with individuals, families, couples, and groups. The training of MFTs includes live supervision by experienced MFTs, which is unique among the mental health disciplines.

Research shows that marriage and family therapy is a cost-effective, short-term, and results-oriented form of treatment. In a recent study, researchers found that clients report high satisfaction with marriage and family therapies, with significant improvements in emotional and physical health, functioning, and relationships.[v]

Do I have to be married to go to a Family Therapist?

No. Individuals often seek marriage and family therapy for help with behavioral problems, relationship issues, or mental and emotional disorders. Family Therapists provide the same services as other mental health professionals, with a different orientation.

Can you do family therapy with only one person?

Family therapy is effective with just one individual or with couples, families or groups.

Do Clients typically appreciate the services of Family Therapists? *

  • 98.1% rated services good or excellent
  • 97.1% got the kind of help they desired 
  • 91.2% were satisfied with the amount of help they received 
  • 93% said they were helped in dealing more effectively with problems 
  • 94.3% would return to the same therapist in the future 
  • 96.9% would recommend their therapist to a friend 
  • 97.4% were generally satisfied with the service they received 
  • 63.4% reported improved physical health 
  • 54.8% reported improvement in functioning at work 
  • 73.7% indicated improvement in children’s behavior 
  • 58.7% showed improvement in children’s school performance

What is the Cost for a Family Therapist’s Services?

  • Mental health services provided by Family Therapists are cost-effective. MFTs provide brief, solution-focused therapy that often results in lower costs to the client.
  • MFT fees are 60% of psychiatrists and 80% of psychologists 
  • Family therapy requires 30% fewer sessions than individual therapy (3.9 v. 5.7) 
  • 68% of Private Practice MFTs reduce fees based on an individual’s ability to pay [iv] 
  • Family therapy has been shown to reduce health care use by 21.5%

What Qualifications should I look for in a Family Therapist?

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) has developed standards for the education and training of Marriage and Family Therapists. The U.S. federal government and many states have utilized the AAMFT’s standards when drafting laws regarding Family Therapists.

The AAMFT Clinical Members have a minimum of a master’s degree, including specific graduate training in marriage and family therapy. Clinical members have also completed at least two years of supervised clinical practice with individuals, couples and families; this includes live supervision of trainees’ cases by experienced MFTs.

The AAMFT Clinical Members are trained in diagnosis, assessment, and treatment and are trained to use a variety of therapeutic techniques and processes. The AAMFT Clinical Members observe a strict code of ethics and welcome inquiries about their training, experience, theoretical orientation, and fees. 

Where do Family Therapists Practice?*

Family therapists provide services in all segments of the health care arena, with the majority offering direct health care delivery. Half of all family therapists work in private practice. One quarter are located in institutional or organizational settings, and the remaining clinicians practice in both. MFTs also provide to specialty populations; minority populations make up 25% of their clientele; 25% work in faith-based settings; 17% work in rural settings; and 9% are in elementary or secondary schools. Overall, family therapists can be found almost anywhere health care is delivered or practiced.

  • Private Practice
  • Community Mental Health Centers 
  • Inpatient Facilities 
  • Employee Assistance Programs 
  • Health Maintenance Organizations 
  • Business and Consulting Companies 
  • Schools and Head Start Centers 
  • Social Service Agencies 
  • Universities and Research Centers 
  • Courts and Prisons 
  • Rural Clinics

How do I Find a Family Therapist?

You can find a family therapist by searching the free online Web site, www.therapistlocator.net. All therapists located through this site are Clinical Members of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and have met the AAMFT’s rigorous education and training standards. It is recommended that you interview several family therapists to ensure compatibility. Often people ask their family physician, clergy, or friends for recommendations.

How do I Choose a Family Therapist?

You should telephone and interview potential family therapists to find out if they satisfy your needs. Some questions to ask include:

  1. Are they a Clinical Member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)?
    • Family therapists who are Clinical Members of the AAMFT meet the educational, supervision, and training standards of the Association. Licensure standards are based on the AAMFT’s Clinical Membership requirements, and the AAMFT accepts licensed MFTs for Clinical Membership in most states. As of 2004, 46 states and the District of Columbia license MFTs, and for those states without licensure, Clinical Membership will demonstrate equivalent education and training.
  2. What is their educational and training background?
    • Family therapists have a doctorate or a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or an allied discipline such as psychology, medicine/psychiatry, clinical social work, psychiatric nursing, or the ministry. If the professional’s degree is not in marriage and family therapy, you may ask about additional post-graduate training they have completed in marriage and family therapy. MFTs also receive two years of clinical experience of which half is with couples and families.
  3. Do they have experience treating the kind of problem you are experiencing; for example, depression, child’s behavior, marital stress, intimacy, sexual problems, alcohol or drug abuse?
    • While MFTs are trained and licensed to provide the full range of mental health services, like all mental health professions, each individual therapist may vary according to expertise. You should inquire as to the therapist’s training and experience with the problem you are facing.
  4. Are their services covered by your health insurance?
    • The majority of managed care organizations and third-party payers reimburse services provided by MFTs.vi & viii Additionally, most employee assistance programs provided through an employer also contract with family therapists. You should contact your plan or payer to ensure they reimburse services provided by MFTs.
  5. What is the average length of marriage and family therapy?
    • Length of marriage and family therapy depends upon various factors, including seriousness of the problem. Generally, marriage and family therapy tends to be short term. Research shows that the median length is 12 sessions, with 65% of cases completed within 20 sessions. Though length of therapy differs from case to case, marriage and family therapy tends to be briefer than many other types of therapy.*

What is the difference between a family therapist and other mental health professionals?*

  1. Marriage and Family Therapists:
    • Master’s or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy
    • Two years of supervised clinical experience
  2. Clinical Social Workers
    • Master’s or doctoral degree in social work
    • Two years of supervised clinical experience
  3. Professional Counselors
    • Master’s degree or higher with a major study in counseling
    • Two years of post-master’s supervised counseling experience
  4. Psychiatric Nurse Specialists
    • Registered nurses
    • Master’s degree in nursing with a specialization in psychiatric/mental health care services
    • Two years of supervised clinical experience
  5. Clinical Psychologists
    • Doctorate in psychology
    • Two years of supervised clinical or counseling experience
  6. Psychiatrists
    • Doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathic (DO)
    • Certified as a psychiatrist or child psychiatrist by the American Medical Specialties Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, or by the American Osteopathic Board of Neurology and Psychiatry

What is the AAMFT?

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) is the professional organization representing more than 23,000 Marriage and Family Therapists in the United States, Canada, and abroad. Since 1942, the AAMFT has increased understanding, research, and education in the field of marriage and family therapy, and ensured that public needs are met by trained MFTs. The AAMFT believes that therapists with specific education and training in marriage and family therapy provide the most effective mental health care to individuals, couples, and families.

*U.S. Census Data & CSAT Practice Research Network Survey

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