There are a lot of similarities between marriage and family therapists and clinical mental health counselors -- so many, in fact, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics groups the two together. Both are master's level mental health professionals. Both are qualified to diagnose and treat mental conditions. Both are trained to work with individuals, couples, groups, and families.
However, marriage and family therapy (MFT) and mental health counseling (CMHC) are two different professions. CMHC emphasizes an eclectic approach to working with clients including cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, person-centered, and systemic approaches. MFT emphasis is on the individual-in-context and systemic theory as foundational in conceptualizing relational and clinical issues.
Each profession has different educational and licensure requirements – and yet shares expectations of academic rigor, advanced clinical skills, and the willingness for personal vulnerability and growth.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs, LCPCs, or LMHCs) both complete two year master's programs; programs are typically between 48 - 60 semester hours. Both types of licensed professionals may evaluate and treat mental and emotional disorders, whether cognitive, affective or behavioral.
The accrediting body for MFT programs is the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). Master degree programs in MFT include coursework in human development, couple and family studies, systemic theories, and the best practices in MFT therapeutic approaches.
The preferred accrediting body for mental health counseling programs is the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). Counseling programs include coursework in assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health disorders, as well as some coursework in group work and career counseling.
Both MFT and CMHC educational programs incorporate three semesters of clinical training (practicum/ internship) in an approved setting as part of the degree requirement.
Graduates in either profession must practice under supervision for a specified period after graduation; requirements are set by the state, but are roughly comparable. For both MFT and LCPC licensure, the requirement is generally two years of supervised clinical practice following graduation. Marriage and family therapists are usually expected to do at least half their clinical hours with couples or families. The exact number of hours required for licensure differs from state to state.
Marriage and family therapists are required to take a licensing exam before their professional license is issued. Mental health counselors take either one or two licensing exams, depending on the state of licensure.
Salary and Career Outlook
Career outlook and salaries are comparable. The average annual salary for a mental health counselor was $43,290 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The profession has been projected to see 36% growth between 2010 and 2020, with the total number employed increasing by 43,600 (from 120,300 to 163,900).
The average salary for a marriage and family therapists was $49,270 in 2012. The profession has been projected to see 41% growth, with the number employed increasing by 19,680 (from 48,000 to 67,680).