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Marriage and Family Therapists: The Friendly Mental Health Professionals

Marriage and family therapists (typically referred to as MFTs or family therapists) are recognized by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration , as one of the five core mental health professions along with psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, clinical social workers and psychiatric nurse specialists. Marriage and family therapists are mental health professionals with a minimum of a master’s degree, two years’ supervised clinical experience and are licensed to independently diagnose and treat mental health and substance abuse problems. 

MFTs treat individuals, couples and families. The unique feature you will find during treatment with an MFT is the therapist will focus on understanding your symptoms and diagnoses within interactions and relationships. The existing environment and context is given careful examination paying particular attention to the family system – as defined by you. MFTs treat predominantly individuals but always from the perspective that “relationships matter.”

Research has shown that family-based interventions are as effective—and in many cases more effective—than alternative interventions, often at a lower cost. Studies suggest that family therapy is a preferred method of treatment for depression, substance abuse, alcoholism, relational discord problems, and child/adolescent challenges including suicide and high risk behavior. 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). 

MFT Training and Education 

• Licensed mental health practitioners 
• Educated with a master’s or doctoral degree 
• Trained with a minimum of two (2) years supervised clinical experience 
• Able to independently assess and diagnose mental health issues
• Experienced to work with individuals, couples, and families

What distinguishes MFTs/family therapists from other mental health professionals?

The training of MFTs includes live supervision by experienced MFTs, which is unique among the behavioral health disciplines. This highly accountable training focuses on the unique attribute of MFT treatment which is the heightened sensitivity between you and those in your environment (family members, coworkers, friends) and how these relationships can help or challenge you and your experienced problem areas. 

What services are provided by MFTs?

• Diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders 
• Individual, child, and adult psychotherapy 
• Couple, family, and group therapy
• Treatment planning 

What disorders are commonly treated by MFTs?

• Depression, bipolar and other affective disorders 
• Anxiety, dissociative, stress related disorders
• Childhood behavioral and emotional disorders 
• Attention-deficit, conduct and other emotional disorders of childhood/adolescence
• Divorce adjustment and transition issues
• Eating disorders
• Couples, marital, and relationship problems 
• Gender and other adult personality disorders
• Conduct disorder and delinquency 
• Alcohol and drug related disorders
• Sexuality issues
• Medical and eldercare family intervention services 
• Domestic violence 
• Schizophrenia, schizotypal, and delusional disorders 
• Adjustment to physical illness 

Where do MFTs/family therapists practice?

Family therapists provide services in all segments of the health care arena, with the majority offering direct health care delivery. Frequent treatment settings of MFTs include:

• VA Centers
• Hospitals
• Private practice
• Community mental health centers 
• Inpatient facilities 
• Employee assistance programs 
• Health maintenance organizations 
• Business and consulting companies 
• Schools 
• Social service agencies 
• Universities and research centers 
• Courts and prisons 
• Rural clinics  

Who are the clients of MFTs?

• Individual, couples, and/or families
• Children, adolescents, adults, and seniors
• Multicultural families
• LGBTQ individuals, couples, and/or families
• Military personnel and their families
• Families impacted by severe or chronic physical illnesses
• Those impacted by severe trauma

How do I find a MFT?

Locating an MFT is as easy as visiting the AAMFT website the Find a Therapist website. It is recommended that you interview several family therapists to ensure compatibility. 

How do I choose a family therapist? 

It is important to understand that seeking services from an MFT will require a high degree of comfort and confidence. Discussing personal matters is very sensitive and you should feel comfortable and confident with your therapist. Therefore, AAMFT suggests that you do your research. Some things to consider:

1. Most MFTs have websites where you can learn about their education, training, experience and their clinical specialties. 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. It is important to learn and feel confident in their credentials. 

2. Are they a licensed marriage and family therapist? Currently all 50 U.S. states have licensed marriage and family therapists.

3. Are they a Clinical Fellow of AAMFT?

4. What is their educational level? 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. 

5. Some MFTs do not participate in insurance plans. Be sure to ask about how services are covered. Some will only take cash payment while others will file insurance. If you plan on using insurance, be sure to ask if the therapist accepts your insurance plan.  Many MFTs participate in employee assistance programs and if your employer offers such a program, you should inquire if the MFT participates. This could help with costs associated with receiving care.

6. Ask if the therapist participates in any type of quality assurance program. For example, do they collect satisfaction surveys from clients following treatment. Basically, how can you evaluate their effectiveness?

7. Ask about the average length of treatment. Length of treatment 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 AAMFT? 

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) is the professional organization representing more than 26,000 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. 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.


AAMFT Resources

Other References

Last updated August 2016

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