Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) vs. Licensed Psychologists

Within the field of mental health, there are a variety of licensures and credentials you could obtain, depending on your educational and career interests. A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Licensed Psychologist both practice within the realm of mental health, but have different areas and populations of focus in providing services. Below is a review of the similarities and differences between the two licensures.

What is an LMFT?

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) are master’s degree level mental health professionals specializing in assessing, analyzing, and treating an intersection of issues within the family system and the mental health of parties involved. LMFTs work in various mental health treatment settings including private practice, hospitals, in-patient and outpatient treatment centers, schools, and rehabilitation centers, to name a few. They focus on interpersonal and family dynamics, and how the two intersect to influence the functioning of individual members and the family unit. Marriage and Family Therapy is brief and solution-focused, where treatment is based on successful goal attainment at the end of therapy. Typically LMFTs see clients for about ten to twelve sessions working towards realistic and attainable goal/s for the family unit.

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What is a Licensed Psychologist?

Licensed psychologists are mental health clinicians at a doctoral level of education that focus on conducting research in the area of psychology along with providing psychological therapies to individuals, families, and couples. They are trained in psychological approaches to understanding, assessing, diagnosis, treatment planning, and interventions within various therapeutic settings. Psychologists can practice in various locations similar to LMFTs, including private practice, hospitals, inpatient and outpatient treatment centers, schools, and rehabilitation centers, and most often remain in the realm of academia as a part of their career. Psychologists take a clinical approach to the treatment of their patients.

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Differences and Similarities Between LMFTs and LPCs

What does an LMFT do?

LMFTs center treatment around the family unit, often taking a family systems approach in treatment planning. The main focus is to improve client relationships and the functioning of the family unit. Highlighted below are the most common work environments of LMFTs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • Individual and family services (29%)
  • Offices of other health practitioners (24%)
  • Self-employed workers/private practice (13%)
  • Outpatient care centers (11%)
  • State government (excluding education and hospitals) (7%)

What does a Licensed Psychologist do?

Psychologists work with a broad population including individuals, couples, families, and groups, but primarily focus on clinical treatment centered around an individual’s needs and optimizing mental and emotional health. Psychologists are trained extensively in conducting academic research and addressing therapeutic needs across a variety of issues including trauma, interrelationship issues, substance abuse, work, and school-related difficulties, depression, anxiety, and comorbid mental health problems. Highlighted below are the most common work environments for Licensed Psychologists according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

  • Elementary & secondary schools; state, local, and private (27%)
  • Self-employed worker (27%)
  • Ambulatory healthcare services (21%)
  • Government (9%)
  • Hospitals; state, local, and private (5%)

Education

Job Outlook and Salary

The field of mental health is constantly growing in its versatility within specializations and the improvement in awareness amongst the general public. LMFTs have seen steady growth over the last few years according to the Department of Labor Statistics, where there is a projected growth of 16% in the next decade. This projected growth is much higher than the average of other occupations in the United States. As of 2021, the median annual pay for MFTs nationally is $49,880, with hourly rates at an average of $24.00, with salaries ranging from $37,050 – $96,520.

Psychologists have also seen steady growth over the last few years which is projected to increase by 6% over the next decade, closer to the average of other occupations in the United States. The median annual wage as of 2021 was $81,040 (higher than the national average) with a range of $47,010 – $167,460.

How to Become an LMFT

A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is a mental health provider who has graduated from an accredited MFT institution and accrued the requirements to hold licensure by the state board to which they belong. The educational requirements are typically overarching across states. One of the main factors to consider is obtaining a degree with accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) or the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP). This ensures your preparation for licensure upon graduation. As graduation approaches, candidates will begin preparing for the state or national licensing examination that is governed by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB). Successful completion of this examination is a requirement to be approved for an LMFT-Associate (LMFT-A) license.

Clinical training is vital in being a competent MFT. Almost all programs (online or in-person) incorporate a clinical practicum or internship as a requirement to successfully graduate. This is typically 12 semester hours. Upon graduation and successful completion of the licensing examination, you would have a probationary LMFT-A license. Generally, LMFT-As need 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience working with clients, 1,500 of which must be direct services with patients. Requirements for the number of hours specifically worked with couples and families vary by state.

The AAMFT council is the national entity that governs state boards overseeing MFTs in their specific states. Information on state boards and requirements can be accessed here. State boards set the policies and regulations on the licensing renewal process, requirements, state ethics code, information on board actions and restrictions, licensure limitations, and information on how to file grievances for therapists and clients. Information on programs that are accredited, and board-approved supervisors available in your area for licensing purposes and supervision hours, may be located via your state’s licensing board website.

How to Become a Licensed Psychologist

A Licensed Psychologist is a licensed clinician that has graduated from an accredited institution by the American Psychological Association (APA) with a doctoral degree, accrued 2000 hours of clinical experience (depending on the state of licensure) while in the doctoral program, and 2000 hours post-doc, and successfully pass the national licensing examination to qualify for licensure. The APA is the national governing body that regulates graduate accreditation, and clinician competence, and sets the guidelines and regulations for licensure-related activities. Licensure requirements may vary across states.

The first step in becoming a psychologist is obtaining a bachelor’s degree. While a bachelor’s degree in psychology is not a requirement to pursue a graduate degree in the field, it may provide a good foundation of what to expect in graduate school. Upon obtaining a bachelor’s degree, you would then seek further education of a graduate degree in psychology or clinical mental health. It is important that the master’s program is accredited by the CACREP, as it is a requirement for licensure upon graduation. Then, further successful completion of a doctoral degree accredited by the APA, either a Ph.D. or Psy.D. is a minimum requirement.

Upon successful graduation from a doctoral program, you would then have to complete the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP) licensure examination along with the required post-doc supervised clinical hours and apply through your state board for licensure.

At this point, you would be able to practice independently without a supervisor. The APA provides information on examinations, the procedure for licensure, and resources for state, educational, and supervisory requirements.

Which Suits Me Better?

A career in marriage and family therapy would better suit individuals who have a passion for understanding and working within a family dynamics perspective. Even when in an individual session, you would approach issues taking into account the effects and influences of the family unit. While most MFTs work full-time, you would have flexibility in setting your schedule in most work environments, and the autonomy to set goals for your patients and career. Besides engaging in clinical treatment, some move on to supervisory roles of LMFT-As and other therapists, director roles in institutional settings, investigative and assessment in judicial cases, or academia and research. Some eventually develop thriving private practices that enable therapists to set the tone of their work environment.

A career in Psychology offers a clinical approach to assessing, diagnosing, and treating mental health issues across a variety of populations. A psychologist has the flexibility of choosing a work environment similar to the choices of an LMFT. However, they mainly focus on more clinical pathology than the general counseling approach of an LMFT.

Most doctoral students already have a master’s degree in psychology, MFT, or a closely related field and pursue a Ph.D. as a means of further specialization as it offers extensive training to developing clinicians, and an in-depth understanding of research methodologies. A doctoral degree does not offer a difference in the level of licensure in the MFT specialization, but graduates are set up to earn the recognition being both, a Ph.D. and an LMFT. Ph.D. qualifications do, however, provide more opportunities in terms of jobs, including academia and careers in practicing as an LMFT.

Choosing a career in mental health can be a demanding process. Factors to consider would include the years spent in education, training, obtaining, and maintaining licensure. The field is, however, one of the most fulfilling careers one could attain. You might wonder which path to choose, which ultimately boils down to your interests and what you hope to achieve.

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Resources

American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
https://www.aamft.org/

Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards
https://amftrb.org/

American Psychological Association
https://www.apa.org/

Bureau of Labor Statistics
https://www.bls.gov/

Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education
https://www.coamfte.org/

Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
https://www.cacrep.org/

Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology
https://www.asppb.net/page/EPPPSignup

National Board of Certified Counselors
https://www.nbcc.org/

O*Net
https://www.onetonline.org/