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.

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.

LMHC stands for Licensed Mental Health 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.

Wondering the difference between a LMHC and a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT)? Check out our lmhc vs lmft guide to learn more.

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.

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Scope of Practice

When it comes to mental health care, LPCs (Licensed Professional Counselors) and MSWs (Master of Social Work) are two professions that have a lot in common. Both types of professionals provide counseling and therapy services to help individuals, couples, and families cope with mental health challenges and achieve their goals. They are also trained to diagnose and treat mental health disorders and guide and support clients facing various life challenges.

To become a licensed Clinical Social Workers one has a broader practice scope, including case management, social services, and advocacy. In addition to providing counseling and therapy services, LCSWs may help clients access community resources, navigate complex systems, and advocate for their rights. This often means that LCSWs work in healthcare settings, schools, government agencies, and non-profit organizations.

Education Requirements

To become an LPC or an MSW, one typically needs to complete a Master's degree in their respective fields, which takes about 2-3 years. Both programs require supervised clinical hours, which can vary by state. They may also include additional requirements such as internships, practicums, or research projects.

While both LPC and MSW programs cover counseling theories and techniques, ethics and professional standards, human development, and psychopathology, MSW programs also cover social work theory, policy, and practice. They may also include community organizing, social justice, and advocacy topics.

Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a positive job outlook for all three professions, with faster-than-average growth expected in the coming years. The increasing need for licensed mental health counselor (LMHC)s and services in various settings such as healthcare, schools, and community agencies has increased the demand for LPCs and MSWs.

Likewise, the BLS predicts favorable job prospects for LCSWs due to the growing need for social workers in healthcare settings and other organizations. LCSWs may have an advantage in certain job markets due to their broader scope of practice, which includes case management, social services, and advocacy. According to the BLS, the employment of social workers is projected to grow 9% from 2021 to 2031, which will be faster than the average for all occupations.

MSW vs. LPC (Master’s in Counseling)

Curriculum

The MSW curriculum is generally divided into two broad categories: generalist and specialist. In the generalist portion, students are taught how to assess clients and evaluate and adjust client services to address their needs.

The following generalist-year courses are required for all MSW students:

  • Required background courses:
    • Human Behavior and the social environment I & II
    • Social work research
    • Social welfare policy
  • Three generalist practice courses:
    • Foundations of social work practice
    • Direct practice with individuals, families, and groups
    • Advocacy in social work practice

Learners take the following courses during their specialized year:

  • Two practice courses
  • A required course in the field of practice
  • Specialized research course
  • Field education

The specialist part focuses on particular fields within the social work profession. For example, students are taught how to work in hospital environments, correctional facilities, or the child protection system. Specialist courses can help students use the knowledge gained through their core courses to make assessments of clients and create intervention plans.

If you plan to take a master’s in counseling course, completing the program will take approximately two to three years.

The Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Education Programs (CACREP) describes master’s in counseling curricula as having two primary components:

  • The foundation and core curriculum cover professional counseling orientation, ethical practice, social and cultural diversity, human growth and development, and assessment and testing.
  • Courses in specialty areas include clinical mental health counseling, school counseling, addiction counseling, and rehabilitation counseling.

Licensure Requirements

The licensure requirements for LPCs, MSWs, and LCSWs vary by state but generally require completing a graduate degree from an accredited program, supervised clinical hours, and passing a licensure exam. Some states may also require continuing education credits to maintain licensure.

While LCSWs have similar licensure requirements to LPCs and MSWs, they may have additional social services and advocacy requirements. LCSWs must typically complete an MSW degree from an accredited program, complete supervised clinical hours, and pass a licensure exam. Some states may also require LCSWs to have a certain number of years of experience in social work practice.

Scope of Practice

The scope of practice for MSW and LPC professionals is similar, as both professions focus on providing counseling and therapy services to a number of clients.

LPCs scope of practice:

  • These professions provide mental health counseling and therapy services to clients to help them overcome mental health challenges and achieve their goals.
  • LPCs are trained professionals with the skills and knowledge to diagnose and treat mental health disorders and provide guidance and support to clients facing life challenges.

MSW’s scope of practice:

  • These professionals have the expertise to provide counseling and therapy services to clients to help them manage their mental health challenges and achieve their goals.
  • Their practice includes case management, social services, and advocacy. MSWs professions can help clients access community resources, navigate complex systems, advocate for their rights, and provide therapy services.
  • MSWs are also trained in social work theory, policy, and practice. They often work in healthcare settings, schools, non-profit organizations, learning institutions, and government agencies.

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.

Compare More Licensure Options:

 

 

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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