LMFT vs. LPCC: Which Licensure Is Right for You?

The work of mental health professionals has never been more important. Approximately 41.7 million adults in the United States received treatment or counseling for mental health in 2021, according to a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. This reflects the continuing growth in the need for licensed counselors and therapists. Students pursuing degrees in the mental health field may find themselves debating between LMFT vs LPCC licensure. Both credentials allow you to practice as a mental health professional, but to effectively choose between them, it's essential to first understand what they are and what sets them apart.

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Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCCs) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) have many things in common, including the requirement for advanced education and clinical training. Both types of professionals use psychotherapy to treat clients struggling with a wide array of mental health struggles, and they offer therapy in individual and group settings. However, LPCCs and LMFTs offer therapy to distinct types of clients, often work in different environments, and may focus on specific types of mental health conditions, difficulties, and disorders. Keep reading to learn how LPCCs and LMFTs differ in education, training, and day-to-day duties.

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What Is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC)?

An LPCC is a mental health professional who is qualified to assess, diagnose, and treat clients who are facing mental health issues. LPCCs offer treatment in one-on-one and group environments and help clients develop strategies to cope with challenges that they face in their daily lives. These difficulties might stem from past experiences, underlying mental health conditions, and current circumstances. The job of an LPCC is to evaluate the full context of a client’s life, uncover triggers and causes of problems, and build a treatment plan.

LPCCs are trained to treat many different kinds of mental health issues. Some of the struggles that an LPCC might help a client address include:

  • Psychological trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Abusive relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders

Many LPCCs choose to offer treatment to a broad population of clients, while others may specialize in a particular type of counseling. LPCCs may concentrate their treatment on:

  • Difficulties in school
  • Rehabilitation
  • Career choices
  • Behavioral disorders
  • Recovery from addiction
  • Grief

LPCCs are typically qualified to treat patients of all ages, including children, teenagers, adults, and elderly clients. However, LPCCs may work in environments that target their treatment at particular age groups. For example, an LPCC who works in an assisted living facility may work primarily or exclusively with seniors, while an LPCC working in a school may only serve children and teenagers.

What Is the Difference Between an LPCC and an LPC?

LPCCs and Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) are closely related and often have overlapping definitions. An LPCC is technically a specific type of LPC, but it’s important to note that the two terms are not always mutually exclusive. Some states offer both types of licensure, while others offer only one or the other.

For states that offer both LPC and LPCC licensure, the LPC designation is typically broader. Many states use it to refer to a variety of types of counselors, including rehabilitation and career counselors, who do not necessarily have training in mental health treatment. In contrast, the title LPCC refers specifically to counselors who are responsible for diagnosing and treating mental health conditions.

In addition, LPC licensure is more widely available within the United States than LPCC licensure. While counselors can receive an LPC designation in two dozen states, the LPCC credential only exists in six specific states:

  • California
  • Kentucky
  • Minnesota
  • New Mexico
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio

States that do not have an LPCC credential may instead use designations like Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC), Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, and Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). These licenses are often quite similar to an LPCC by definition, and they also often have a different level of meaning than the more general term of LPC.

Depending on the state where you live, certain types of counseling, such as career counseling, may not require a particular type of licensure. Counseling professionals involved in mental health treatment, however, must be licensed to practice within their states. Reviewing the state’s licensing requirements can help clarify whether you need to apply for licensure and which type is most appropriate for your preferred career path.

What is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)?

An LMFT works with couples and families who are struggling with conflict, substance abuse, or mental health problems. They evaluate and diagnose mental health disorders and use psychotherapy as a form of treatment. LMFTs provide essential services for families and couples who want to have more productive, positive relationships over the long term.

LMFTs focus on a variety of issues that create difficult dynamics within families and relationships. Some of the areas that they commonly treat include:

  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Marital problems, such as infidelity
  • Divorce and separation
  • Premarital challenges
  • Conflicts and poor communication between parents and children
  • Mental health issues like depression and anxiety

Couples might turn to LMFTs when they are experiencing problems in their relationships, contemplating ending their marriages, or recovering from an especially difficult period, such as a health crisis. Likewise, families often rely on LMFTs to provide guidance and support when their communication is strained, a child is repeatedly acting out or breaking rules, or one or more members feel isolated and disconnected from the rest of the family.

LMFTs are also trained to help individuals cope with the consequences of aging. For instance, an LMFT might offer support to a client whose parent is developing symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, which can permanently alter the nature and quality of the relationship. The LMFT might help the parent and child find ways to relate to one another in spite of their changing circumstances and give the child an opportunity to express frustration or grief over shifting caretaking responsibilities.

The goal of an LMFT is to help a family or romantic couple improve the quality of their social interactions and emotional connection while offering techniques and strategies to address disagreements. Marriage and family therapy thus relies heavily on group therapy sessions, but many clients also receive individual treatment. This allows them to speak to the LMFT privately about issues that they may not yet feel comfortable addressing with other family members. It also creates a safe space for discussing behavior that could be dangerous or unhealthy, such as verbal, physical, or psychological abuse.

While LMFTs can use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help address a client’s struggles, they face certain limitations. Holding an LMFT license does not grant the ability to:

  • Prescribe medications
  • Administer or interpret psychological tests
  • Diagnose or treat physical ailments or conditions

LMFTs who believe that a client is in need of physical treatment or medication can make a referral to a licensed psychiatrist, psychologist, or medical doctor.

LPCC vs LMFT: What Are the Key Differences?

While LPCCs and LMFTs both specialize in serving clients with mental health issues, they are distinct from one another in several ways. In order to decide which licensure is the best fit for your professional goals, it’s crucial to first understand the differences between them.

Job Duties

The job duties of LPCCs and LMFTs often overlap, but they differ in terms of focus and client population. While LPCCs may sometimes work with clients who are struggling with problems related to family dynamics, LMFTs work almost exclusively with clients facing these kinds of situations. LMFTs are also more likely to work with multiple members of a family, whereas LPCCs may work with a single individual from a particular relationship.

LMFTs work on helping families and couples build stronger, more supportive networks and emotional bonds. To achieve this goal, they complete a number of crucial tasks, including:

  • Observing and analyzing the behaviors and interactions within the family
  • Examining the context and history of the relationship as a group and the individual members
  • Facilitating group therapy sessions that focus on particular challenges
  • Holding separate psychotherapy sessions with each member of the family to work through personal issues
  • Making recommendations for changes in behaviors and communication styles

Although some families and couples may attend therapy for many months or even years, marriage and family therapy is typically intended to be short-term. In other words, clients attend a set number of sessions to work through their problems and build stronger relationships. The average family attends 12 sessions of marriage and family therapy, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. As a result, each session is targeted toward meeting specific goals and improving family dynamics.

On the other hand, LPCCs generally work with clients for an indefinite period of time. Treatment is open-ended largely because LPCCs generally serve clients with mental health or substance abuse concerns, which can be chronic or ongoing. The daily job duties of an LPCC include:

  • Performing intakes and patient evaluations
  • Conducting psychological assessments to identify emotional and behavioral disorders
  • Diagnosing mental health conditions
  • Leading group and one-on-one therapy sessions
  • Developing strategies for improving mental health and monitoring patient progress

Although LPCCs do not have the ability to prescribe medications for mental health treatment, they may make referrals and recommend that clients incorporate medication into their treatment plans. In many cases, they coordinate with other medical professionals to create an integrated course of treatment that works to address both physical and mental conditions simultaneously.

LPCC vs LMFT Salary

Counselors and therapists, particularly those who have newly joined the field, typically earn average or slightly above-average salaries. The median annual salaries for LMFTs and LPCCs are quite similar, but your potential earnings in these professions differ dramatically depending on a variety of factors, including where you work.

As of May 2021, the median yearly pay for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is $48,520, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Keep in mind that this category does not exclusively refer to LPCCs because states have different licensure types for professional counselors. Median salaries for marriage and family therapists are slightly higher at $49,880 per year. The salaries for both of these professions exceed the median annual wage for all workers, which is $45,760.

However, the median salary for an LMFT may be much higher based on the industry that you choose. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that LMFTs who work for outpatient care centers have median annual salaries of $57,930, and those working for the state government earn $77,960.

In contrast, the median salary for LPCCs working for the government is $60,450 per year. LPCCs who work for hospitals and outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers have median annual salaries of $49,630 and $47,550, respectively.

While LMFTs on the whole seem to earn slightly more than their LPCC counterparts, it’s important to remember that several other factors come into play when determining salary. These include:

  • Your years of experience
  • Your specialization
  • The state where you practice

For instance, data from Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, which is affiliated with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that LPCCs in California have annual mean wages of $59,790 while those in Utah earn $66,190. Thus, choosing a particular type of license doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you will make more money, particularly because there is often little difference between an entry-level LPCC vs. MFT salary. Rather, multiple elements of your professional experience will come into play and determine how much you earn.

Education Requirements

Both LMFTs and LPCCs must hold a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in most states, but the type of degrees they earn is often different. It’s helpful to know which degrees are most closely associated with each type of license, regardless of whether you have already earned your degree and are considering which licensure to pursue or if you are in the process of selecting a degree program.

Because their work is specific to a certain population, LMFTs often earn degrees in marriage and family therapy. This helps ensure that they are fully aware of the complex issues that arise among couples and families and can offer the most effective course of therapy and treatment. Many colleges and universities offer traditional and online master of arts and master of science degrees in marriage and family therapy.

While a marriage and family therapy degree is ideal, LMFT hopefuls may also have the opportunity to become licensed after completing other graduate programs. Some states will accept related degrees, such as a Master’s in Counseling, in place of a degree in marriage and family therapy.

When it comes to earning a degree, LPCCs have slightly more flexibility. LPCCs are less likely to complete a marriage and family therapy degree because their client population is much broader. Thus, an LPCC might enroll in a master’s in counseling or a master’s in psychology degree program. Both degrees are available as a master of arts or a master of science. A master of arts in these fields is typically considered a terminal degree, whereas a master of science serves as preparation for a doctoral degree program.

The type of degree you select also depends on whether you intend to pursue further education in the future. If you plan to work as an LPCC and then later advance toward becoming a licensed psychologist, a master’s degree in psychology is likely a better choice. If, however, you intend to work as an LPCC for the remainder of your career, a degree in counseling may be a better option. In some cases, a psychology master’s degree may require a greater time commitment and a higher number of minimum credit hours.

Work Environment

When debating between MFT vs. LPCC licensure, the work environment is a natural consideration. Knowing where you want to work may help clarify which type of licensure is the better option. Many LMFTs and LPCCs work in similar environments, which include:

  • Private practices
  • Mental health centers
  • Substance abuse treatment centers
  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Government agencies

However, some environments are better aligned with the work of LPCCs than that of LMFTs. For example, many LPCCs work in correctional facilities, where they offer mental health treatment to incarcerated individuals who have committed crimes. Although LMFTs may treat clients who have incarcerated family members, they are less likely to work within correctional facilities because the environment is not as conducive to family or couple therapy sessions.

LPCCs may also work in crisis intervention centers, which provide services to individuals who are experiencing mental health emergencies and suicidal ideation. These organizations are not as well-suited to LMFTs, who are less likely to focus on individual mental health interventions. Instead, they treat families and couples experiencing problems in their relationships.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reflect the types of employers that tend to employ LMFTs and LPCCs. As of 2021, 19% of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors, which includes LPCCs, worked for outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers, and 15% worked for individual and family services. In contrast, 29% of marriage and family therapists worked for individual and family services and 24% worked in the offices of other health practitioners. Only 11% of LMFTs worked for outpatient care centers. The significant difference in the most common work environments for LPCCs and LMFTs is likely attributable to the client populations that each type of mental health professional serves.

How to Become an LPCC

Each state has its own requirements to become licensed as a mental health professional. In most cases, to receive an LPCC, you must demonstrate that you have met the following criteria:

  • Education: Most states with LPCC credentials require students to earn a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited college or university. You may also have to show that you earned a minimum number of credit hours in advanced clinical coursework. Licensure requirements in some states also include completing an internship or practicum as part of your degree program.
  • Clinical experience: Depending on the state, you may need to complete several hundred or a few thousand hours of clinical experience under the supervision of a licensed professional.
  • Background check: LPCCs have access to extremely sensitive information and work with vulnerable clients, so state licensure typically involves one or more background checks. Local law enforcement agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) perform these checks to verify that you do not have a criminal record.
  • Examination: Before qualifying for a license, you will need to take at least one counseling exam offered by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). According to the NBCC, either the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam (NCMHCE) is required for licensure in all 50 states. These exams assess your professional knowledge and skills in providing counseling services.
  • Application: After meeting the academic and professional requirements for licensure, you must submit an official application to the state where you hope to practice.

If your license is approved, you will need to renew it periodically, generally every one or two years. Licensure renewal has its own set of requirements and often involves completing a set number of continuing education hours.

LPCC Job Outlook

Mental health treatment is in high demand, particularly as taboos surrounding counseling and therapy have eased and people have become more open about their need for support. As a result, the job market for professional counselors has grown.

The projected growth rate for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors is 22% through 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This rate is much faster than the average for all occupations, which was 5% as of 2021. This accelerated growth translates to more than 43,000 job openings over the next several years, which creates ample opportunities for prospective LPCCs.

The overall demand for mental health professionals also reinforces this positive growth. The percentage of adults who received mental health treatment increased from 2019 to 2021, rising from 19.2% to 21.6%, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The job market for LPCCs is likely to remain bright as greater numbers of clients seek their services.

How to Become an LMFT

Becoming an LMFT requires a combination of academic and professional accomplishments. The specific steps that you must take to receive your licensure differ depending on the state where you want to practice, but the requirements generally include:

  • Education: Students who want to become LMFTs will need to earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. Graduating from an accredited master’s program in an appropriate major is essential to having your licensure approved. You may choose to earn a master’s in marriage and family therapy or a similar mental health program.
  • Clinical experience: After graduating with your master’s, you will need to complete a number of post-graduate clinical hours. Each state has its own standard for the number of hours required, but it generally ranges between 2,000 and 4,000. These hours must be completed under the supervision of a licensed LMFT.
  • Background checks: Prospective LMFTs have to undergo extensive background checks to receive licensure. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies will review your history and determine whether there are any concerning items on your record, such as criminal offenses.
  • Examination: One of the final steps toward receiving licensure is passing the Examination in Marital and Family Therapy. This exam helps state boards of examiners evaluate your knowledge and mastery of key concepts. The test consists of 180 questions according to the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Board (AMFTRB), which creates and administers the test.
  • Application: Once all of the licensure requirements have been met, you must submit an application to the professional counselor licensure board within your state. The board will review the full scope of your academic and professional and academic experience and determine whether your license should be approved.

Once you have received your license, you will have to work to maintain it. Many states require LMFTs to complete continuing education hours before applying for licensure renewal. Continuing education courses help practicing LMFTs stay current on new laws, methods, and developments within the field.

LMFT Job Outlook

LMFTs can expect to see significant growth in the field for the foreseeable future. More specifically, there will be approximately 6,400 job openings for marriage and family therapists each year through 2031, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This equates to a growth rate of 14%, which outpaces the projected rate for many other professions.

Many of these open positions are the result of retirements and people changing careers, but they also represent a growing demand for support for families and married couples. For example, many families have sought help in addressing substance abuse and addiction problems within their families, particularly as drug use rates have continued to rise nationwide. A 2020 survey by the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics found that 50% of people aged 12 and up have used illicit drugs at least once, and the number of drug overdoses has risen steadily since 2017. Consequently, greater numbers of families are reaching out to LMFTs for guidance and treatment, both for individuals struggling with substance abuse and family members who may be experiencing resentment, depression, and anxiety because of their loved one’s addiction.

 

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Sources

Association of Marital & Family Therapy Regulatory Boards, Examination in Marital and Family Therapy

Centers for Disease Control, Mental Health Treatment Among Adults Aged 18-44: United States, 2019-2021

The National Board for Certified Counselors, National Certification and State Licensure

National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, Drug Abuse Statistics

Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021 21-1018 Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

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