4 answers

What distinguishes a family therapist from a psychologist?

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I am a senior in high school and I am considering majoring in psychology. I am unsure of what career I would like to do under this major. #psychology #psychologist #therapist

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4 answers

Michele’s Answer

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Hi, Shadae, One of these is a specialty within the mental health treatment world, while the other is a level of therapist. Let me explain:


A family therapist is a therapist who specializes in family treatment. This person must have at least a master's degree in social work, counseling, or clinical psychology and a license by the state to treat people and bill insurance for that treatment.


A psychologist is someone with a doctorate in some aspect of psychology, who may choose to use that to get a license and treat people as a therapist (including a family therapist), or they may use it as a college professor, a researcher, etc. People with their master's degrees are not "psychologists." They are called counselors, social workers, therapists, etc. Only if they go on to earn their doctorate in psychology do they then change to the term psychologist.


So a family therapist COULD also be a person with a doctorate in psychology, and would therefore be a psychologist, too.


Every state has unique therapist licensing processes which graduate schools in that state will prepare you for in terms of your coursework. If you go to grad school in one state and plan to practice in another, be sure to look up the other state's requirements so you get what you need to be qualified. Then some states have an initial license and a higher level license - the higher one you get after so many hours/years of documented experience, and that's typically the one that allows you to bill insurance as an individual practitioner (e.g. go into private practice).


Let me know if this helps clarify!

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Michele’s Answer

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I should add that with a bachelor's degree in psychology, you can work in mental health in some ways, but those roles can be limited, because the ones really doing treatment all have their master's degrees and licensure. So to get licensed and serve at an agency as a counselor/therapist/social worker or independently in private practice and get to higher pay, you need to plan on a bachelor's and a master's degree (about 6 years). What's cool is that people who go to grad school for counseling often have varied bachelor's degrees (because there are almost no programs with bachelor's degrees in counseling, so everyone comes from some other field). In social work and psych, however, people often have bachelor's in that field and then get their master's in it, too. If you want to work in the hospital setting, there is still a tradition of hiring social workers over counselors. What I suggest is that you look at graduate course listings in the three areas: clinical psych, social work, and counseling. Whichever courses most appeal to you will guide which undergrad degree you should choose. If you like graduate counseling best (like I did), you can go a number of different directions for your undergrad, which can add a lot of value to your professional profile as someone with diverse expertise (e.g. my bachelor's was in education). Going straight through in all the same major is more limiting for sure and gives you fewer options throughout your career.

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Shelly M.’s Answer

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Hi Shadae,


Michele already gave great advice, so I won't repeat what she's said.


As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I have a different view of how I approach therapy than many of my colleagues who are psychologists, social workers, or professional counselors. In our Masters' programs we learn extensively about systems and relationships, and this guides much of the work we do with clients, regardless of whether I'm seeing an individual, couple, or family. We train students to view the person in a broader, relational context, in addition to their individual issues, and to help clients in this way. MFT does have a different state license, based on different courses and training requirements, and they do have different graduate programs.


In taking Michele's advice for looking at programs in those three areas, I would also look for an MFT program to get a feel for the courses/programs. They are different than the other three. People do tend to gravitate toward one program over another, so you'll get an idea of where you'd be most interested. Best of luck!

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K. Michie Harriss’s Answer

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I agree with what Michelle said, but I think psychology and social work are the most flexible degrees for what you might want to do and give you broader opportunities. You will definitely need a masters degree or PhD or you will otherwise be limited to entry level positions with very few opportunities for advancement. Good luck!
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