Marriage and Family Counseling or Mental Health Counseling? A Guide

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Couple going through counseling together.

There are many forms of professional counseling, and just as many counseling career options. There are diverse ranges of client populations, conditions, needs and other demographic factors, and each may require different skills and knowledge from counselors.

To help meet the demand for effective counseling, many professionals consider pursuing a graduate education to refine abilities, learn new competencies and advance their careers. However, for some, the question of “what type of psychology career is right for me?” can be a challenge. So many career choices with a psychology degree exist, and students usually decide based on their personal and professional interests.

However, learning about all the possible counseling career options can help students identify the best choice. In doing such research, two major types of counseling emerge: mental health counseling and family and marriage counseling. It’s important to learn the distinctions, because there are subspecialties within these larger groups. In either case, an online Master of Arts in Counseling from Bradley University helps students develop nuanced skills and gain from a dynamic learning environment.

What are the differences?

While there is overlap between mental health counseling and family and marriage counseling, key differences exist. The American Counseling Association (ACA) describes individual counseling — which is relatable to the scope of mental health counseling — as “a personal opportunity to receive support and experience growth during challenging times in life … [helping clients] deal with many personal topics in life such as anger, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, marriage and relationship challenges, parenting problems, school difficulties, career changes, etc.”

The ACA further explains marriage counseling, sometimes called couples counseling, as helping clients resolve conflict, reach understandings, and reestablish realistic expectations and goals. Family counseling, the ACA says, can take various forms (mixing group and individual counseling), while common topics include “concerns around parenting, sibling conflict, loss of family members, new members entering the family, dealing with a major move or a general change affecting the family system.”

Parsing the differences between the two is somewhat difficult, but mental health counseling can be broadly understood as helping clients address mental health needs — whether related to a condition or not — and providing therapeutic relief and advice. Family and marriage counseling can incorporate some of the same elements of mental health counseling, like issues brought on by stress, grief and addiction. The key distinction is that this method of counseling addresses those issues within the context of the family unit or a marriage, as well as how it affects members of those groups and what remedies families can employ.

Mental health counseling career options

Mental health counselors help clients cope with behavioral complications, emotional needs and/or psychological problems. Counselors in this area employ many techniques and interventions to aid clients in understanding their feelings or developing ways to self-regulate. Professionals with focused skills and knowledge are needed to serve the wide population of clients, which leads to counseling career options including:

  • Individual counseling: As the ACA explains, individual counseling helps clients deal with personal issues and how they affect the individual, as well as their relationships with other people.
  • Substance abuse counseling: These counselors specialize in providing support for clients who suffer from substance abuse, helping them deal with addiction.
  • Rehabilitation counseling: Professionals in rehabilitation work with clients who have a disability or experience life-altering events to help them lead positive, productive lives.
  • Crisis counseling: Crises can provoke intense and complex needs for counseling, and counselors in this specialty help clients recover from traumas.
  • Veterans counseling: Members of the armed services can struggle with adapting to civilian life, or have mental health needs related to experiences in combat, all of which these counselors are uniquely prepared to help them address.

Given the wide variety of career choices with a psychology degree, mental health counselors are often employed in diverse settings, both public and private, and in practice or in academia/research. Counselors may be found in independent practices, health systems, government agencies, corporations, substance abuse facilities and nonprofits, among other settings.

Completing a master’s degree can help professionals advance, earning a higher counseling and mental health services salary. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) found the median annual wage for mental health counselors was around $43,000, above the average for all occupations, and could range higher depending on where counselors are employed. Those in the government, for instance, averaged $50,000 in salary.

Family and marriage counseling career options

As noted, family and marriage counselors can encounter many of the same issues as mental health counselors (grief, crisis, substance abuse, depression), but primarily address client needs through the lens of the family or a marriage. Additionally, while family and marriage counselors may see clients in an individual setting, the bulk of family therapy casework is conducted through group sessions. This calls for different skills and strategies on the counselor’s part to facilitate self-expression, mediate discussion, resolve conflict, heal wounds and achieve positive outcomes for the family or couple.

Family and marriage counselors, similar to mental health counselors, can be found in a variety of employment settings. Counselors in social services agencies often need to address family cases in their workload, while marriage counselors can find jobs in hospitals as well as businesses. Family and marriage counselors earn a bit more than mental health counselors on average, about $47,000 according to BLS data. And the market for their services is rapidly expanding. Government figures predict a 23 percent increase in family and marriage counselor jobs between 2016 and 2026, above the 16 percent clip seen across all occupations.

Earn your online degree from Bradley

Counselors interested in a career in either path should consider earning their master’s from Bradley. The online Master of Arts in Counseling program is designed to provide a high-quality learning experience that features a robust curricula, world-class faculty, experiential learning opportunities, ambitious learning outcomes and a chance to grow both personally and professionally. The Clinical Mental Health Counseling track of the online MAC program can help students focus their studies on mental health counseling or family and marriage counseling.

Contact an enrollment advisor today to learn more about Bradley and the online Master of Arts in Counseling.


Recommended Reading

CMHC or PSC: A look at these two counseling specialties

Do’s and don’ts of family counseling​

Bradley University Online Master’s in Counseling



What Is Professional Counceling? – American Counseling Association

Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors – BLS

Marriage and Family Therapists – BLS