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

The counseling profession 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 field of counseling should you consider? Three of the most common counseling certifications are LPC, LCSW, and LMHC. While some overlap exists among the three vocations, some significant areas of distinction also exist.

Consider what it would mean for you to become an LPC vs. LCSW vs. LMHC.

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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 and a Master of Social Work (MSW). 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 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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LMHC stands for licensed mental health counselor. This role is distinct from the LCSW role in a few ways. While clinical social workers tend to study a wide range of issues, including social policies, community health, and interpersonal relationships, the LMHC is more narrowly focused on mental health. To become an LMHC, you’ll need to develop a strong educational background in clinical diagnosis, addiction counseling, psychology, treatment planning, and more.

Another important distinction between an LCSW vs. LMHC is the clientele served. Clinical social workers tend to focus on underserved or vulnerable populations, including those who lack access to proper resources, such as housing. By contrast, counselors work more broadly with those who are suffering from mental health issues.

Finally, while both fields require an advanced degree, the LMHC role can be obtained with a background in psychology or even sociology. For the LCSW role, a degree in counseling or a closely related field is preferred. (Supervised clinical hours may be required for the LMHC, though the number varies by state. These professionals may work for government agencies, in inpatient facilities, or in private practice.)


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.

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 $47,660 in 2020.
The BLS entry for other types of counselors shows a median annual salary of $50,800 in 2020.
The BLS reports that the median annual salary for social workers was $51,760 in 2020.

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.

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

Counseling Career Guide

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