LPC vs. LCSW vs. LMHC: What’s the Difference?

Reviewed by: Megan Kelly, MA, LMHC

Editor’s note: "This article provides a brief but helpful overview of some of the high-level differences between LCSWs, LPCs, and LMHCs. While each license type offers its own distinct benefits to license holders, the decision about which path to follow comes down to a consideration for your overall career goals and what you hope to accomplish with your license."

The mental health field offers numerous paths for making a direct, positive impact in the lives of clients. If you’re someone who’s passionate about mental health, if you enjoy getting to know people, and if you’re interested in learning more about clinical practice, a counseling profession may be right for you.

The question is, which career and license path should you follow? Three of the most common counseling licensed are Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), and Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). While some overlap exists among the three license paths, some significant areas of distinction also exist.

Read more to consider what it would mean for you to become an LPC vs. LCSW vs. LMHC.

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LCSW vs. LPC

LCSW stands for Licensed Clinical Social Worker. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), clinical social work may be defined as “a specialty practice area of social work which focuses on the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness, emotional, and other behavioral disturbances.” As an LCSW, you’ll be able to provide therapy at the individual, family, or group level. However, therapy is just one part of the social worker’s job; you’ll also help connect your clients with community resources or social services that can help them optimize their mental health and well-being.

To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, you’ll need to obtain an undergraduate degree, as well as a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Additionally, you’ll need a certain number of supervised clinical hours, which state licensing boards determine. Social workers may work for individual and family services, for government agencies, and for ambulatory health services.
LPC stands for Licensed Professional Counselor. The American Counseling Association reports that counselors provide services to empower “diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”

Counselors tend to help their clients address specific issues, which may include substance use or mental health issues. Counselors can also provide specialized types of counseling, such as counseling that’s focused on marriage or relationship issues. A master’s degree in counseling is required, followed by an internship including supervised clinical experience. Counselors may work in outpatient mental health facilities, in hospitals, for government agencies, or for addiction rehabilitation facilities.

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LCSW vs. LMHC

LCSW stands for Licensed Clinical Social Worker. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), clinical social work may be defined as “a specialty practice area of social work which focuses on the assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness, emotional, and other behavioral disturbances.” As an LCSW, you’ll be able to provide therapy at the individual, family, or group level. However, therapy is just one part of the social worker’s job; you’ll also help connect your clients with community resources or social services that can help them optimize their mental health and well-being.

To become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, you’ll need to obtain an undergraduate degree, as well as a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. Additionally, you’ll need a certain number of supervised clinical hours, which state licensing boards determine. Social workers may work for individual and family services, for government agencies, and for ambulatory health services.

LPC stands for Licensed Professional Counselor. The American Counseling Association reports that counselors provide services to empower “diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”

Counselors tend to help their clients address specific issues, which may include substance use or mental health issues. Counselors can also provide specialized types of counseling, such as counseling that’s focused on marriage or relationship issues. A master’s degree in counseling is required, followed by an internship including supervised clinical experience. Counselors may work in outpatient mental health facilities, in hospitals, for government agencies, or for addiction rehabilitation facilities.

LMHC vs. LPC

The primary distinction between an LMHC vs. LPC is one of practice breadth and focus. LMHCs are highly trained in assessing, diagnosing, treating, and preventing mental illness. If you seek a career in this profession, your job will largely focus on working with mentally ill clients.

By contrast, while LPCs receive training in mental illness and can help clients navigate the effects of mental health disorders, they may focus on other areas of counseling, such as marriage and family issues or career issues. 

Editor’s note: LPCs and LMHCs often have very similar roles and responsibilities, as both are typically able to provide mental health care for individuals, families, and groups. In many cases, the distinction will be based on the official license type in the state where you reside—where one state offers an LPC license, another will offer an LMHC license. Additionally, in some states, LPC is the highest level of licensure a counselor is able to obtain, whereas in other states, LPCC or LCPC (Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor or Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor) is the highest level of licensure that one can obtain. Similarly, some states will offer an LMHCA (Licensed Mental Health Counselor Associate) designation for individuals who are still working to obtain independent licensure, and LMHC is the highest level of licensure one can obtain within that particular discipline. As always, it’s important to learn the laws of your particular state to understand which license type will apply to your work as a counselor.

LMHC vs. LPC vs. LCSW Salary

As you consider your career prospects, it’s certainly helpful to think about educational requirements, basic job descriptions, and beyond. However, you may also have some questions about earnings expectations.

What does the data tell us about LMHC vs. LPC vs. LCSW salary ranges?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t specifically record data for LMHCs, but it reports that the median annual salary for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $48,520 in 2021.

The BLS entry for other types of counselors shows a median annual salary of $45,160 in 2021.

The BLS reports that the median annual salary for social workers was $50,390 in 2021.

Explore the Difference Between LPC, LCSW, and LMHC

While all three of these counseling credentials allow you to make a direct impact in the lives of patients and to devote at least part of your practice to mental health advocacy, the three fields ultimately have some notable differences.

The best way to explore what’s different in the LPC, LCSW, and LMHC career paths is to take a closer look at different degree programs, including online learning opportunities. Take some time to investigate online counseling degrees.

Sources:
American Counseling Association, 20/20: Consensus Definition of Counseling
Indeed, LMHC vs. LCSW: What They Are and How They Compare
National Association of Social Workers, Clinical Social Work
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Counselors, All Other
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

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