What is a Marriage and Family Therapist?

What is a Marriage and Family Therapist?

Students in classroom discussion

When Carissa D'Aniello-Heyda, PhD, LMFT, was considering graduate school, she knew she was interested in "helping" professions, but she wasn't ready to commit to getting a Ph.D. in psychology, which she thought was the only track available to her at the time. After doing some research, she learned that she could do therapy and have her private practice with a master's degree in social work (MSW), marriage and family therapy (MFT), or counseling. "That was a big revelation," she said. After doing even more research, she realized that the holistic approach used in marriage and family therapy fit with her outlook on life, and she enrolled in the MFT program at Fairfield University. "MFTs see couples, families, and individuals in the context of the family group and all of those interconnected web of relationships." After years of practicing as an MFT and ultimately getting that PhD, Dr. D'Aniello-Heyda returned to her alma mater as the department chair and associate professor of the Marriage and Family Therapy and Social Work programs at Fairfield University. Here, she shares some of her insights to help define what a marriage and family therapist does and what it takes to be an MFT.

Primary Focus and Scope

A Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) is a licensed mental health professional specifically trained to work with individuals, couples, and families to address a wide range of emotional and psychological issues. MFTs specialize in providing therapy with a particular emphasis on relationships and family dynamics. They help clients navigate a wide range of emotional and psychological issues, such as communication problems, conflict resolution, intimacy concerns, parenting challenges, and other issues that can affect the well-being of individuals and the stability of relationships.

How Do MFTs Approach Therapy?

MFTs approach therapy with a focus on understanding and improving family dynamics, communication, and relationships. MFTs use various therapeutic approaches, including cognitive-behavioral techniques and other evidence-based practices, to help their clients achieve healthier relationships and improved mental health. They often use systemic approaches to address issues. Dr. D'Aniello-Heyda appreciated how practitioners in the field "see a person in the whole context of how the world views people and their experiences in the world." She described it as a system like a car with parts that work cooperatively to get you where you want to go. MFTs approach their work by looking at all the parts of a family—the individuals, partners, siblings, and other family members—to understand how they work together.

What Does an MFT Program Look Like?

To become an MFT, you typically need to complete a master's degree program in Marriage and Family Therapy, which includes coursework, supervised clinical experience, and often a research component.

The Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) degree program at Fairfield University emphasizes diversity. A diverse group of faculty, instructors, and supervisors welcome and mentor a diverse student body in curriculum and clinical work that addresses equity, power, privilege, and social justice in all aspects of training and education. Faculty members maintain national and international recognition by publishing and presenting papers and serving on professional, state, and national committees.

The program is fully accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). All faculty members are approved supervisors and clinical members of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and are licensed in the State of Connecticut.

Dr. D'Aniello-Heyda loved the program at Fairfield, which is one of the reasons she returned as an associate professor to help grow the next generation of MFTs. "You can't do better than Fairfield University," she says, touting its rigorous theoretical perspective, hands-on clinical training, and exceptional faculty with deep experience in the field and a good sense of what students need.

Licensing and Regulation

MFTs must obtain a license to practice, and licensing requirements vary by state or country. This often involves completing a specific number of supervised clinical hours and passing a licensing exam. It's wise to research the licensing requirements in the location where you plan to practice, as regulations can vary. Similarly, if you're seeking the services of an MFT, be sure to verify their credentials and licensing in your location.

Fairfield MFT students who complete the program may apply for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) associate membership. Following additional post-degree clinical experience and supervision, they may also apply for clinical membership in this organization and sit for Connecticut's licensing examination.

Are You a Good MFT Candidate?

It takes a special kind of person who can devote time and energy to helping other people through their pain and suffering. Dr. D'Aniello-Heyda states, "You have to be centered in yourself, know how to take care of yourself, and appropriately care without taking on other people's burdens. MFTs need to have a sense of responsibility because they are caring for other human beings." She adds, "It helps to be a good listener, empathetic, and nonjudgmental."

MFT Career Opportunities

MFTs primarily work in private practice, community mental health agencies, or family therapy centers. Their expertise lies in family and relationship counseling. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, opportunities in MFT careers will grow by 15% in the next decade. The median annual wage for an MFT was $56,570 in May 2022.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue a Marriage and Family Therapy degree depends on your interests, career goals, and the people you wish to serve. "If you want to do something meaningful and think you can be an MFT, your future clients need you," says Dr. D'Aniello-Heyda." It is one of the most rewarding careers. You won't be sorry!"


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