Right now I’m at the AAMFT Annual Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. The conference itself hasn’t started yet, but as President-Elect of the Mid-Atlantic Division of AAMFT (http://www.madmft.org), I just finished attending Leadership Day, which is a day set aside for – you guessed it – leaders in the AAMFT divisions. The purpose of Leadership Day is to get together and talk about ways we can better service our members and the populations and clients we serve. It’s also a rare opportunity to interact with the leaders of AAMFT divisions from all across the US and Canada, and see what amazing work they are doing in their divisions to promote the practice of marriage and family therapy.
As I sat at Leadership Day today, one thought kept occurring and reoccurring to me: we rock. You heard me – marriage and family therapists (also known as couple and family therapists) rock. Let me tell you why: we are arguably (and I will argue with you on this one!) the best-trained mental health profession in regards to working with couples and families. While other professions receive a few hours or classes in their degree programs on multi-person work, marriage and family therapists must complete a minimum of 500 client contact hours, 250 of which must be relational, or couple or family work. That’s a lot of hours in the chair learning how to balance a session, hear all differing points of view without excluding anyone, and oh yes, move the therapy forward in a productive and fruitful way. Did I mention that’s in addition to the two years of coursework? All this focus is on working with systems – not just the internal workings of one person (though we do that too!), but the internal workings of every person in the room, plus interpersonal dynamics between them, and the larger familial, cultural, and societal context that surrounds them all. Impressed yet? You should be; this is not easy work. And yes, we can do individual work too – like building a house when you’re an expert on constructing cathedrals, we can morph all this larger systems training to focus on the systems on and in one person too.
A systems perspective also means that marriage and family therapists focus on process, not just content. Process is just that – the processes at work between clients as they address their issues. Calling process can be tricky stuff, but it is vital to authentic and productive psychotherapy work. MFTs trained in systems are also trained to call how those systems interact with one another, and how, which is one aspect of process.
Can you tell I’m excited? I am. I have an inexhaustible amount of pride in the work we do and the profession at large. That’s why it drives me crazy when people haven’t heard of us.
I have nothing against social workers, psychologists, licensed professional counselors, or any other mental health discipline – in fact, I work with these other professionals daily, and they are often a tremendous help to me. I especially appreciate and respect colleagues in other professions who take it upon themselves to seek out additional training in working with couples and families, recognizing that they may indeed have a hole in their formal clinical training. I believe it is a sign of wisdom to identify what we do not know, because only then can we seek to know it.
What I want is the same kind of high visibility for MFTs that these other professions enjoy, because we’ve earned it. The leaders I had the privilege of interacting with all day are unpaid volunteers who feel similarly. We are on fire to get the word out to agencies, businesses, legislators, companies and anyone else who will listen: try us. You will be pleased. I promise you. I have been the pioneering MFT at several organizations, and my story is similar to dozens I have heard over the years from employers who have been smart enough to hire an MFT, even if they’ve never heard of us before – we rock. We have this therapy thing down pat – we are professional, organized, serious therapists who know how to move things forward for the better. In fact, the agencies I know of who have “taken a chance” on an MFT (a safe bet if there ever was one) have gone on to hire MFTs again and again. And why wouldn’t they? We are not only highly trained; we understand that with every step forward we are the image-bearers for our profession. We know that for better or worse, when we are the first MFT in any setting we carry the reputation of all MFTs with us, and we take that responsibility very seriously.
But that first step is a doozy, and we need to do a better job of getting the word out there so that the public has enough information to make an educated decision and hire us, whether it is an agency or private practice client doing the hiring. Part of our job as MFTs, is educating the public as to our impressive expertise and potential. Wherever I go, I am armed with a short, ready-to-go speech about who we are, what we do, and why we rock. I’ve educated people from the tellers at the bank to my postal carrier, who wanted to know what the letters “LCMFT” after my name stood for on my mail. I’m eager and happy to do it, because they need to know.
And so I charge you to do the same. Be ready for your opportunities to share and educate – not in a preachy way (though I have been known to get on my soapbox; can you tell?) but as the truth it is. This is the secret to pull marketing – tell the truth. Our truth is that we have extraordinary talents and skills, honed by huge investments of time, money, sweat and tears. We are uniquely trained to deal with complex issues of couples and families – don’t be afraid to tell people so! If we don’t, no one else will, and those other groups don’t have nearly as much to prove as we do. We have a responsibility to ourselves, our colleagues, and our profession to share the truth about what we have to offer.
No, it’s not fair. But that’s the way it is, until we have gained as much visibility and understanding in society at large as social workers, psychologists, and other mental health groups. I am so looking forward to that day! But until then, this is my clarion call to you: educate. You already know we rock; it’s time the rest of the world knew too.
Laurel Fay is a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist and owner of Laurel Fay & Associates, a private psychotherapy practice in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is the President-Elect of the Mid-Atlantic Division of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, as well as a Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor. She gets a little excited when she talks about MFTs. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.