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What’s the Difference Between a MFT and a MSW Program?

For those who enjoy working with people and helping their community, pursuing an education in marriage and family therapy or social work offers excellent opportunities to put these desires to work. Both fields allow you to make a genuine difference in people’s lives.

It’s only natural that you might have questions about the differences between the marriage and family therapy field and the field of social work. To help you make a better, more informed decision on which graduate degree best suits your career dreams, here’s a quick overview of the two:

Forming client relationships: MFT versus MSW

When you compare programs like ACU Online’s Master of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) and the Master of Social Work (available through ACU’s residential campus), there appears to be considerable overlap in the opportunities each presents.

Professionals with either credential are prepared to help people in a variety of different environments, including hospitals, non-profits, private practices, adoption agencies and more. They both want to help others better manage life’s challenges and stressors. They might also see similar types of clients. When you get into the details of how these two classifications of professionals work with their clients, however, the differences become clearer.

Those in the social work field tend to help clients directly by applying social work theory, knowledge, methods and ethics to help individuals, couples, families, or groups. They look at many different aspects of the issue and apply knowledge and practice skills in assessment, treatment, planning, implementation, case management, counseling, and much more. An LMSW may practice clinical social work in an agency employment setting under clinical supervision, under a board-approved supervision plan, or under contract with an agency when under a board-approved clinical supervision plan.

As ACU Online’s director for the Master of Marriage and Family Therapy program, Dr. Sara Blakeslee Salkil explains, “A social worker is going to be attuned to skills, resources and case management for a particular client. So, connecting them with resources in the community, helping them manage a difficult life transition maybe from employment to unemployment or underemployment to employment.”

On the other hand, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) focuses on the connections between clients and others in their lives, particularly everyone who is impacted by or part of the client’s struggle or challenges. They want to help people restore relationships and take a systemic perspective on how to best help clients achieve success in their therapy. They often work with couples and families who want to improve relationships.

As you begin to study for an MFT degree and earn your licensure, you will learn more about the various models for understanding how these social connections impact people’s mental health, their ability to maintain strong relationships and how well they can overcome their trials. You will help them improve these connections and build a better quality of life for themselves.

“There are lots of different models of marriage and family therapy,” says Dr. Salkil in regard to ACU Online’s MFT program, “so there are different ways of approaching the way that we think about problems and solutions. There are what we call the ‘modern models’ of therapy. Those are the models that were developed as the field of marriage and family therapy emerged in the middle of the century. And then there are the ‘postmodern models’ that were developed as scholars and practitioners began to take a social constructionist view of how problems and solutions are generated. We teach several models from each of those camps.”

An LMFT is trained to approach clients suffering from a variety of mental or behavioral health issues from a systemic perspective. Practically, the therapist may bring together significant people in the clients’ lives—partners, siblings, parents, grandparents, etc.— who are impacted by or involved with the problem.

Differences between the MFT and the MSW

Both the MFT and the MSW programs require studying the various theories involved in their fields. Those earning an MFT will focus on the theories prevalent in the multiple schools of thought within marriage and family therapy.

Similarly, those pursuing an MSW degree will focus on the theories of social work, but they will not spend many credit hours looking at the couples and family therapy theories. Although they may take coursework on relationship therapy, they will not be dedicating the same amount of time as someone in an MFT degree program would. Instead, the MSW course work will focus on the ecological context of the client, including how to understand their resources and relationship with the community.

It is also important to note that the state licensing requirements for these fields may differ slightly. Generally speaking, however, after earning a degree, those interested in becoming an LMFT will need to sit for a national exam. The coursework will have prepared them for this test, but they will still need to dedicate their time and energy studying for it. Following the exam, in many states, these graduates will be eligible to counsel clients.

Texas, for example, allows those who have passed their qualifying exam to become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy Associate (LMFTA), giving them the ability to meet with clients, but they must have at least 3000 hours of client contact to drop the “A” and be fully credentialed as an LMFT.

In Texas, an exam score lasts for six years. During that time, Associates would be earning client contact hours toward their full license. Many states require at least 1000 client contact hours and require a minimum of two years of practice before applying for the full license; at this time, Texas requires 1500 hours of direct client contact and 1500 hours of related experiences, which typically includes such things as attending workshops and writing case notes.

Those interested in working directly with people in their community and helping people better overcome their challenges and struggles will find that both the MSW and MFT degrees can set them up for a desirable career path. To learn more about MFT, visit ACU Online’s program page. Or, call 855-219-7300 for additional information.

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