What is a Marriage and Family Therapist?

A Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) is a professional licensed by the state to perform counseling and psychotherapy services to the public.  The state licenses many occupational services where there is a significant risk to the public if the practitioner does not meet a certain standard of care, including physicians, attorneys, and counseling professionals.  

An MFT in the state of California must earn a master’s degree in psychology through an accredited university, pass a number of specified courses of study and state exams, and attain a minimum of 3000 hours of supervised experience in the field.  Once licensed, MFTs are required to undergo continuing education to maintain their knowledge on best practices in order to work in the best interests of their clients.  There are also various certifications that MFTs can attain in order to enhance their skills and specialize in certain techniques and problems that clients may present with.

Prior to becoming a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), there are two levels of supervised clinicians.  The first is an MFT Trainee, who is in the final year of attaining their master’s degree in psychology, has successfully completed a number of specified graduate-level courses, and works under the supervision of a licensed MFT supervisor.  The second is an MFT Associate, who has completed their graduate-level scholastic work and clinical experience, has received a registered MFT Associate number from the state, and works under the supervision of licensed MFT supervisor.

There are other professionals who also engage in counseling or counseling-like work.  Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in psychotropic medications that alter chemical levels in the brain which impact mood and behavior; in this day and age, few psychiatrists engage in psychotherapy with their patients.  Psychologists are professionals with a doctoral degree in psychology; they have a different state licensing than MFTs, but are also able to engage in psychotherapy with their clients.  Many social workers obtain licensure that allows them to engage in psychotherapy with their clients.  “Life coaches” are not state licensed, although some life coaches attain certification with various private organizations to enhance their skills and/or credibility; legally, life coaches are not allowed to call their work psychotherapy, because they have not received the state-required education, training, and licensure to do so.