The Ethical Implications of Advertising MFT Professional Services


Technology has facilitated new ways in which clinicians can attract and connect with potential clients. Nowadays, many clinicians use social media platforms to reach potential clients. Social media advertising allows for an informal format and fast launch; however, the content of the advertisement might lead to potential ethical implications if the advertisement does not follow professional ethical standards.

One of the more common complaints licensing boards receive is related to inaccurate representation of credentials and professional training to the public (Wilkinson, Smith, & Wimberly, 2019). Misleading credentials, inflation of accolades, misrepresentations of academic degrees and specializations, or practice without accurate titles or licenses are just a few of the examples of ethical violations that can be found in some providers’ advertisements.   

When clinicians prepare their professional and social media advertisement (e.g., website, brochures, business cards), they must keep in mind the ethics principles of beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and fidelity. Potential clients rely on the professional advertisement to find and select a clinician with skills and qualifications necessary to help them address their issues. This process is based on the assumption that the information provided to clients is accurate. In other words, clinicians need to be truthful in all things when advertising their services.

It might also be useful to think about your advertising from the client perspective and what their expectations and hopes might be for finding a therapist. Recently, a person shared with me the following story: “I have been looking a long time for a therapist who can work with me and my family. What you read on these professional websites is not necessarily what you get when you are in session. You are reading about the many accolades, specializations and achievements of the therapists, and sometimes it sounds too good to believe, so you raise your expectations and put your hopes in that person.” As we continued talking, this person went on to describe how he noticed that some therapists are misleading in their professional credentials and wonder what we (as a professional organization) do about it. It is important to remember that some of our clients feel emotionally vulnerable and have been hesitant about seeking mental health services, or, they have been looking for a competent specialist for a long time.

Shead and Dobson (2004) recommend avoiding advertisements that promote the following: 1) saying that you have certain abilities or skills when you do not have the proper training. For example, advertising your services as a Gottman therapist when you only had taken Level 1 Training and are not certified; 2) expressing professional superiority or exaggerated statements about the effectiveness of your services by undermining other therapists’ skills or other therapeutic models; 3) guaranteeing successful outcomes or healing without empirical data to support that statement, or 4) Using manipulative advertisement that promotes people’s fear and anxiety by stating possible consequences in case they do not seek services.

It is also important to review AAMFT Ethical Standards (2015) before starting to work on advertising. Standard 9.1 tell us that Marriage and Family Therapists must accurately represent their competencies, education, training, and experience relevant to their practice of marriage and family therapy in accordance with applicable law. In addition, Standard 9.2 states that marriage and family therapists must ensure the advertisements and publications in any media are true, accurate, and in accordance with applicable law. Standard 9.5. states that marriage and family therapists must claim degrees for their clinical services only if those degrees demonstrate training and education in marriage and family therapy or related fields. It is not uncommon to see on professional websites and on social media that some new therapists, shortly after graduation, and others not so new in the field, advertise themselves as experts in the handling of several mental health issues. There needs to be a correspondence between therapist’s expertise on one hand, and training, education and years of experience in the field on the other hand. A lack of experience and or training will likely become obvious when you meet your clients.

Standard 9.3 states that marriage and family therapists do not hold themselves out as being partners or associates of a firm if they are not. If you decide to add professional affiliations in your advertisement, it is important to provide an accurate description of the roles you have at those institutions without exaggerating titles or positions. For instance, therapists should avoid making false or deceptive statements regarding their research skills, publications, academic affiliations, or other work-related activities. If you are affiliated with an academic institution (teaching there), it is advisable to consult with faculty of that institution to ensure accuracy of professional status and representation of the institution.

Clinicians need to be truthful in all things when advertising their services.

Standard 9.4 states that marriage and family therapists do not use any professional identification (such as business card, office sign, letterhead, internet, or telephone or association directory listing) if it includes a statement or a claim that is false, fraudulent, misleading, or deceptive. For example, including only a generic acronym such as “MFT” is misleading because “MFT” by itself does not indicate any licensure, certification, or academic degree (Else, 2019). Some practitioners claim to be marriage and family therapists because of what they studied in graduate school, but according to AAMFT, an MFT is both trained in MFT and licensed. This situation will vary depending on the state in which a clinician practices. In some states, clinicians can use titles or abbreviations such as LMFT, MFT, Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, and Registered Associate MFT, etc. For this reason, it is important to review the state-level specifics on board licensee advertisement requirements.

When creating a description of your specializations and the therapeutic modalities you use, it would be helpful to ask yourself the following questions: Do I have the knowledge and skills that I am advertising? Do I have the expertise I claim to have? Do I have the specialization to treat the presenting problems I advertise, or am I relying only on what I learned in a class during graduate school? Have I received training beyond graduate school in a specific therapeutic modality? Have I finished treatment with those clients whom I claim to have expertise treating? How successful have I been with those clients? Did my clients achieve their therapeutic objectives? At this point, it would be helpful to consult with colleagues or supervisors who have more clinical experience than you and/or more academic training to provide you with feedback as to how you need to advertise yourself at this specific time in your career.

Shead and Dobson (2004) recommend clinicians who are preparing an advertisement to include a short description of specific interviewing style, a general interaction style, or theoretical orientation. The authors point out that modesty and caution are important components of advertising. Listing many therapeutic modalities or declaring expertise in every possible issue that an individual, a family or a couple can have might raise some questions about the clinician’s competence.

It is critical that academic programs educate their students about advertising their services while adhering to AAMFT ethical standards. Typically, students are most concerned about learning when to report, how to avoid dual relationships, and how to maintain confidentiality, among other issues, so that they “stay out of trouble,” and have little interest in learning how to accurately represent their skills and abilities to the public. It is imperative that MFT programs explain to students that the avoidance of inaccurate or falsified professional advertising is equally important as the issues that might readily “lead to trouble,” and is also an ethics issue that can negatively impact their careers. Advertising with integrity, providing accurate descriptions of our professional services, avoiding harm, and using ethics principles will help our potential clients make more informed decisions and select a therapist that best fits their needs.

Tatiana Melendez-Rhodes, PhD

Tatiana Melendez-Rhodes, PhD, LMFT, is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor, and a member of the AAMFT Ethics Committee. She is assistant professor and clinical coordinator of the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Central Connecticut State University.


AAMFT. (2015). AAMFT code of ethics. Retrieved from

Else, F. (2019). Misleading professional credentials: Unethical and unprofessional counselors? Counseling Washington.

Shead, N. W. & Dobson, K. S. (2004). Psychology for sale: The ethics of advertising professional services. Canadian Psychology, 45(2), 125-136.

Wilkinson, T., Smith, D., Wimberly, R. (2019, January). Trends in ethical complaints leading professional counseling licensing boards disciplinary actions. Journal of Counseling & Development, 97-104 doi: 10.1002/jcad.12239

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