How to become a licensed marriage and family therapist?

HomePsychologyLicensed marriage and family therapy (LMFT)

What do marriage and family therapists do?

Integrated health care – provided by a team of specialists – is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. As a result, licensed marriage and family therapists are in high demand. Explore our guide to this field to get an idea of what they do, how to become one, and the potential career prospects. Is this the program for you?

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) help people manage interpersonal problems. Working with individuals, couples, and families, MFTs work to evaluate and understand how these relationships affect an individual’s mental health. Divorce, layoffs, and depression are a few of the acute circumstances that these professionals may address. They often treat broader issues such as stress, psychological disorders, and addiction. Individual or group therapy sessions can also focus on topics such as specific behavioral disorders in children, anger management, or anorexia in young people.

While MFTs can make a diagnosis, they are not authorized to prescribe medications. Marriage and family therapy tends to be relatively short term and solutions based.

Marriage and family therapists generally practice some of the following techniques:

  • Listen to and encourage clients to discuss their experiences and emotions
  • Help clients understand their reactions to difficulties in their lives
  • Assist clients with developing healthy coping mechanisms
  • Assess client perspectives and provide feedback
  • Help clients develop new interpersonal communication techniques
  • Diagnose problems and develop treatment plans
  • Refer clients to community services and resources, such as support groups and addiction treatment facilities

MFTs use a variety of psychotherapeutic treatments, including cognitive-behavioral, psychoanalytic, and humanistic therapy.

Becoming a marriage and family therapist

Aspiring MFTs need to earn at minimum a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy or a similar mental health field. Related subjects include psychology, psychiatry, and clinical social work.

To achieve licensure, MFT candidates need to complete 2 years, or 4,000-6,000 hours, of supervised clinical fieldwork and pass a state board exam. MFTs must also pursue annual continuing education credits to maintain their Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) status.

Here are the 4 main steps to achieve LMFT status:

Earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution 

For most MFT programs, an undergraduate degree in any area of study is accepted for enrollment. However, prerequisites in counseling, statistics, human development, and research methods are usually necessary. Many students who wish to become a MFT study psychology.

Students can often choose between a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) and a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in psychology. The B.S. focuses more on math, science, and research, while the B.A. concentrates more on the liberal arts.

Both will qualify you for application to an MFT master’s program, but a B.A. is usually recommended for MFT candidates. Because it is more STEM-oriented, a B.S. in psychology could better prepare students who wish to pursue a Ph.D.

Bachelor’s degrees usually take 4 years to complete full time. This degree can be earned online, on campus, or using a hybrid approach. However, students with completed internships or field experience may have a better chance of enrolling in graduate school.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2018 and 2019, total annual costs at a 4-year public institution averaged $20,050. This increased to an average of $43,139 per year for students attending private colleges and universities.

To obtain a place in most master’s programs, students need to earn a bachelor’s degree from a certified institution. To gain national accreditation, schools must demonstrate high standards to an outside, independent agency. This gives an institution and its graduates credibility with other institutions and employers.

Earn a master’s degree through an accredited program

A master’s degree in marriage and family therapy is the standard academic requirement for the MFT license in all states. However, some students attain a master’s degree in counseling psychology, emphasizing MFT, or a master’s degree in clinical counseling (MACC). Licensing agencies set curriculum standards. Consequently, the main differences between these programs are the available areas of specialization.

MFT master’s graduates will typically earn either a Master of Art (M.A.) or Master of Science (M.S.) degree. There isn’t much difference between these degrees, and state licensing boards don’t distinguish between them.

There are 3 main areas of education for the master’s degree: marriage and family therapy, MFT studies, and human development. Courses can include subjects like sexuality, couple and systems therapy, and research methods.

As well as coursework, students must complete clinical fieldwork and a thesis. Strong research skills can help students pinpoint their areas of strength and interest to determine their specialization.

Completing a master’s program often takes a total of 2 or 3 years, including fieldwork and a thesis. The overall credit requirement is generally 60 hours. Some MFT programs are only 45 to 50 credits, which may not qualify a graduate for licensure in all states.

Since this degree requires a requisite number of face-to-face clinical hours, students can’t earn it wholly online. Once you have your master’s degree, you will qualify as an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist.

The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) recommends earning a degree through a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). Program accreditation is also available from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Complete 2 years of supervised clinical experience

All states require an internship with a minimum of 2 years or 4,000 to 6,000 clinical hours. This can be achieved by working for churches, charities, nonprofit organizations, private practices, or other enterprises that provide mental health services. All of these need to be supervised by an LMFT, psychologist, or social worker.

To begin an internship, graduates need to register for an intern number within 90 days of graduation. This can take up to 60 days to receive. Interns may or may not earn an income while accumulating their clinical hours. Private practices and government positions offer the highest salaries for entry level MFTs, with nonprofits providing very little in terms of compensation.

Attain a license

Licensure requirements vary by state, though many have modeled their conditions on AAMFT recommendations. Some regions use the Examination in Marital and Family Therapy, while others have their own exams. All of these will most likely test a student’s knowledge of treatment, interventions, client diagnosis, and ethics.

Even after an LMFT has completed these requirements, they need to keep their credentials up to date. Since most licenses only last 2 years, LMFTs should accrue continuing education credits. These can be earned through online training programs, at state-approved workshops, or through additional coursework at an accredited institution.

Career prospects

To practice without supervision as an MFT, you must have a valid license from the state where you’ll be working. LMFTs can work in various professional areas, including individual and family services, private practices, local and state governments, and outpatient care centers.

Without a license, an MFT can only do counseling while under the supervision of other psychologists, LMFTs, licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), or psychiatrists.

Work opportunities could exist in schools, universities, inpatient mental health facilities, and clinics. Some LMFTs work in the offices of other healthcare providers, employee assistance programs, or prisons. Positions could include clinical supervisor, mental health consultant, college counselor, or community mental health therapist.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2019, the mean annual salary for licensed marriage and family therapists was just under $50,000. The BLS also reports that the lowest 10% of therapists earned less than $32,070, and the highest 10% earned more than $87,700.

The biggest earners were therapists employed in state government, excluding education and hospitals. They made, on average, $72,230 per year. Therapists working in outpatient care centers were next, with a mean annual wage of $52,140.

Job growth was projected to be 22% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the 4% growth for all occupations.

Alternative career paths

While an LMFT specializes in psychotherapy, focusing on the family, an LCSW can find positions in areas like public policy, community resources, and therapeutic intervention. A graduate with a master’s degree in social work (MSW) can work unsupervised as a social worker but must obtain a license to conduct clinical therapy. 

According to the BLS, the median annual wage for social workers was $50,470 in 2019. Job growth was projected to be 13% between 2019 and 2029. 

While the course requirements are the same for either path, an LMFT focuses mainly on relational and interpersonal dynamics within families, marriages, and couples. In contrast, a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC) focuses primarily on the needs of patients as individuals. 

According to the BLS, in 2019, the median annual wage for clinical counselors was $46,240. Job growth was projected to be 25% between 2109 and 2029. 

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)

A member-based professional association for marriage and family therapy practitioners. 

Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB)

This is an association of state licensing boards that regulate MFTs. 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook

A publication by the BLS with information about becoming an MFT. 

U.S. Department of Education

Oversees the accreditation process for all educational institutions. Provides quick links to check the accreditation status of post-secondary institutions. 

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