The Marriage and Family Therapist: A Human Services Professional
Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and licensed to diagnose and treat mental, psychological and emotional disorders. These therapists provide therapy for clients dealing with depression, anxiety, individual problems, marital issues, family dysfunction and child-parent difficulties. (AAMFT)
Marriage and family therapists tend to approach therapy with a family-centered perspective, even when working with individuals. (BLS) The therapists typically encourage clients to talk about emotions, experiences and relationships in order to evaluate how family roles affect the individual’s mental health. MFTs often address issues such as low self-esteem, stress, addiction and substance abuse. (BLS)
How Marriage and Family Therapy is a Service to Society
Marriage and family therapists help clients adjust to life changes, such as divorce, layoffs, illness and loss. They may serve as guides for clients who are beginning to make decisions about the future. Through therapy with a marriage and family therapist, many clients are able to develop skills and learn strategies that will help them cope with current difficulties.
The new skills can help clients alter situations and behaviors that are not working for them and lead to changes within their families, as well. MFTs often collaborate during the course of treatment with other professionals, such as psychiatrists and social workers, and they provide clients with referrals to appropriate community resources. (BLS)
Marriage and Family Therapy’s Impact on Society
Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) provide direct services to individuals and families in many different areas of health care. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy reports that about 50 percent of MFTs are private practice clinicians; 25 percent work in organizations and institutions, and about 25 percent see clients in both settings. Marriage and family therapists offer therapy services to diverse populations; for example, 25 percent work with minority populations; 25 percent are involved in faith-based settings; and 17 percent practice in rural settings.
Therapy at the Individual Level
Marriage and family therapists provide therapeutic services for individuals of all ages who are dealing with a wide range of emotional, mental and psychological problems. Clients come to see marriage and family therapists in private practice or at community agencies, mental health centers, schools and colleges, corporations or government organizations, when they want to talk with a trained professional about issues, feelings, fears and worries that impact their personal, familial and work lives.
They are looking for someone who can help them understand and overcome the problems they may have been struggling alone with for too long. Examples of problems MFTs are trained to work with are: difficulty coping with stresses and life crises, concerns about a child’s behavior, marital issues, anger management, substance use, eating disorders, retirement and aging, sexual identity, conflicts on the job, anxiety and depression.
Therapy at the Family Level
Marriage and family therapists receive training in various modes of therapy that prepare them to work with individual adults, families, children, couples and groups. These mental health professionals are taught to recognize the benefits of treating mental and emotional problems using a family orientation and of working within the context of the family system.
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, studies have shown that family therapy is a successful method of treatment for a variety of problems that affect individuals and families, including depression, substance abuse, parent and child problems and marital issues. Family therapy interventions are also effective with families who are caring for elderly relatives or for children who are chronically ill.
Studies of using family therapy for schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses have been carried out at numerous research facilities, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where therapists met with mentally ill individuals and their families on a regular basis.
The family members were encouraged to talk openly about their problems and stressors, and then to try to come up with ways to alleviate the family members’ most difficult problems. This therapy method was shown to have a positive therapeutic impact.
Family therapy for severe mental illness led to improved well being, increased self-efficacy, fewer illnesses and a reduced need for medical care.
Education Necessary to Join the Work Force
Master’s degree programs in marriage and family therapy, mental health counseling and clinical psychology, prepare students to provide therapy to families, couples, individual adults, children and groups. Although a bachelor’s degree in fields such as psychology, social work or sociology is acceptable for entry into a master’s degree program, a master’s degree or doctorate is required for anyone whose goal is to become a marriage and family therapist.
Marriage and family therapy programs teach students about how families, marriages and other relationships function and how they affect psychological and emotional disorders. Following graduation from an accredited program, the graduate must complete 3,000 hours — about two years — of post-graduate degree clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed marriage and family therapist before applying for licensure or certification.
All states require marriage and family therapists to earn a master’s degree and be licensed to practice therapy. After completing 3,000 supervised clinical hours, new marriage and family therapists are required to pass a state-recognized licensing exam in order to become licensed practitioners.
Marriage and family therapy licenses must be renewed annually or biennially, depending on the state’s requirements. All MFTs must complete 36 units of continuing education classes before license renewal.
Marriage and Family Therapy Occupation Outlook
The job outlook for marriage and family therapists is very positive. The number of employment opportunities for marriage and family therapists is expected to increase by 41 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is much faster than the 14% average job growth calculated for other occupations.
One reason for the potential increase in MFT jobs, is the expectation that as the population grows more people will enter treatment for mental and emotional problems than in previous years. To meet the needs of additional therapy clients, more MFTs are likely to be hired by health centers, hospitals, colleges and other institutions that provide mental health services.
Range of Salary by Job Category
Employment opportunities will increase primarily in schools, hospitals, substance abuse clinics, consulting firms and private companies. The national average annual wage for marriage and family therapists in 2021 was $49,880 , or approximately $23.98 per hour.
Average annual wages and approximate hourly wages for MFTs working in specific job categories and settings include:
- $121,160 ($58.25) — Local and State Government
- $62,140 ($29.88) – Mental Health Management Positions
- $121,160 ($58.25) — Home Health Care Services
- $79,880 ($38.40) — General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
- $62,920 ($30.25) — Other Mental Health and Health Practitioners or Organizations
- $60,000 ($28.84) — Individual and Family Services
- $65,480 ($31.48) — Outpatient Care Centers
Employment and wages — overall and by specific job — vary from state to state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2021 report on Occupational Employment and Wages. For example, New Jersey has one of the highest employment levels in this occupation and pays marriage and family therapists some of the highest average wages at $83,590 annually and $40.19 hourly. Other high-paying states include Hawaii, Rhode Island, Utah, Nevada, Georgia and Minnesota. On the other hand, states that report the lowest annual salaries for MFTs are Wisconsin, Tennessee, Alabama, Nebraska, West Virginia and New York, although some wages in New York metropolitan districts are closer to average.
Range of Salary by Degree Level
All marriage and family therapists are required to have a master’s degree or a doctorate in an appropriate field. MFTs with doctorates can expect to earn on average $6,000 to $8,000 more per year than MFTs who have master’s degrees. Marriage and family therapists with either graduate degree must be licensed by the state in which they plan to work.
2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Marriage and Family Therapists reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed May 2023.