Psychologist, Psychiatrist, Marriage And Family
Therapist ... A Little Clarification

My name is Jim Holley and I am a California Board of Behavioral Sciences Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working in Northern California, or, through video conferencing, any resident of California.

To most people outside of the profession of Mental Health, there is a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about what the various titles, degrees, and designations mean, and what the actual scopes of practice are. It is my hope and intention to help clarify some of this for you here.

JWHolley, M.A., Marriage and Family Therapist

Psychotherapy Or Therapy

Psycho means mind, and therapy is a healing process - is a label given to the process of a licensed professional working directly with a client (or patient)–who can be an individual, a couple, a family, or a group—traditionally face to face, but now also via telephone, and internet, to help sort through, provide support for and hopefully resolve a variety of issues that are challenging the client.

This process has also been called ‘counseling’ in the past, and is still often (though technically incorrectly) referred to as such by both professionals and the general public.

Therapist, Psychotherapist, Coach, Counselor, Psychologist, Psychiatrist

Are all terms used to identify the professional working in this or similar process with the client/patient.

Professional coaches and counselors are not licensed to engage in ‘psychotherapy’ with their clients. These professions are basically to provide hands-on, here and now strategies and support toward specific goals (coaching), and guidance and support–typically with a specific issue, ex.- addiction, grief, anger, etc., and often in group settings–(counseling).

Many K-12 schools have counselors, some of whom are licensed psychotherapists, but most of whom focus primarily on academic issues.

A Psychotherapist (often just referred to as a Therapist)

is a professional licensed by the state in which they work, who is specifically qualified–by virtue of his or her education and State license–to engage in psychotherapy with his or her clients (patients). This professional can be a Psychiatrist, a Psychologist, or a Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT).


is a Medical Doctor (M.D.) who has specialized in psychology (the study of the mind), and is generally responsible for assessing, diagnosing, and prescribing medication for his or her patients. Psychiatrists are psychotherapists because they can and sometimes do engage in the process of psychotherapy with their patients.


is someone who has earned a Ph.D. in the field of psychology and has qualified for a State license as a Psychologist. Many psychologists are engaged in research, and others are often responsible for testing and assessment of their clients/patients. As with psychiatrists, psychologists can and sometimes do engage in the process of psychotherapy with their clients/patients, and when they do, are also referred to as psychotherapists.

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)

is someone who has earned a Master’s Degree in the field of psychology and has qualified for a State license as a Marriage and Family Therapist.

This designation qualifies the professional to practice psychotherapy specifically as it impacts the client’s relationships. These relationships can and do include relationship with self, with romantic partners, with families, and the client’s relationships within the arenas of work, education, friendships, and social circles.

Many people understandably are confused by the name of the license, which implies that these therapists work only within the scope of marriage and family issues. Most are surprised to discover that the scope is actually much broader than that.

Another confusion also frequently arises around the designation of therapist versus counselor, and for good reason. The previous license designation for this work was called Marriage, Family, and Child Counselor (MFCC), and while the nature of the work and scope of practice did not change, the name of the license did - to its current designation, Marriage and Family Therapist.

The key here is the designation of ‘therapist’ as opposed to ‘counselor.’ The change in designation was to more correctly and consistently identify the work and scope of the practitioner. Just as with Psychiatrists, and Psychologists, MFT’s are qualified and licensed to practice psychotherapy. They also often work in other areas like education, psycho-education–typically educating groups about psychological issues (ex. - parents, students, businesses, etc.), consulting, and so on.

I hope that this summary is helpful to you both in better understanding the terms and concepts, and in better determining professionals most likely to meet your needs.

Congratulations again on your first steps in finding the support you are seeking. Please remember, you do not have to face your challenges alone, and I (and others) are here and want to help you.

Great success in your search. Please let me know if I can be of any further service to you. In the meantime I wish you love, joy and peace always.