A lot of people are confused by the terms psychologist and psychiatrist, words often used interchangeably. Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) are a designation of their own. Why and how would you choose a professional is a tricky question. This blog is about just that: how is my work different from that of psychology, and what perspective can you expect from the MFT point of view.
Marriage and Family Therapy (or Couple and Family Therapy) is distinguished from psychology/psychiatry mainly by the use of systems thinking – picture your mental health in the context of your relationships with family, friends, community, and society. Both psychology (the treatment of the mind and clinical intervention, practiced by a Master’s or PhD level clinician) and psychiatry (a more medical and neurobiological treatment of the mind, practiced by a medical doctor specializing in psychological treatments) are rooted in the medical model of health intervention. They prioritize an individual’s health, focus on the development and symptoms of personal challenges, and sometimes reach a diagnosis.
Marriage and Family therapy developed out of a similar school of thought, pioneered by psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers bent on finding a more relational way of practicing with clients who are challenged by the interpersonal effects of their problems. From a “Systems” perspective, individuals’ challenges don’t happen in isolation. Marriage and Family Therapists have specialized in the social-dynamic nature of life’s challenges. We look first at the relevant systems (family, extended family, community, societal, legal and political), and integrate this understanding into the inclusive clinical work. For psychologists, treatment looks like aiming intervention at either the individual’s psycho/social functioning, or neurobiological functioning, and treatments are often linked to models of intervention purporting scientific evidence, including educating patients/clients, and developing and practicing mental/behavioral skills. As a Couple and Family Therapist, I build into this treatment how functioning affects, and is affected by relationships, as a way of securing therapeutic change.
Therapy from the couple and family therapy approach looks at how individuals’ relationships are operating, including individuals’ relationships with themselves and their challenges. This is not to say that psychologists or psychiatrists don’t recognize how the “etiology” (development) of a problem can be relational/generational, or that they exclude families from treatment. On the contrary, several programs within our health system, practiced by psychologists and social workers, are based on this very premise. But how people relate to their problem, and how problems are constructed together with others we’re in relationship with, is another perspective of how problems persist and/or progress. This is the perspective I hold in my practice: our struggles exist within a complex social system.
Marriage and Family Therapy is also influenced by psychology and social work – this profession doesn’t exist in isolation, either! Marriage and Family Therapists are qualified to provide mental health interventions. Personally, my practice of couple and family therapy is informed by my undergraduate education in psychology, and my therapeutic approaches have roots in Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Developmental theories. My passion is about the space between ourselves and those around us, and I address a wide array of issues within the context of relationships and the family/social system (e.g., depression, marital problems, anxiety, individual psychological problems, child-parent problems).
To read more about the profession of Marriage and Family Therapy, go to aamft.org/qualificaltions