LCSW vs. MFT: What’s the Difference?

Roughly 1 in 5 U.S. adults — more than 50 million people — live with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), underscoring the nation’s urgent need for qualified mental health professionals. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that career opportunities in the field of mental health will be abundant over the next several years.

The federal government recognizes both licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) and marriage and family therapists (MFTs) — also known as licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) — as core mental health professionals, along with psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, and psychiatric nurse specialists. These mental health professionals provide needed support to various groups, helping them manage stress, develop coping strategies, apply for benefits, or find housing.
While the two professions have similarities, their areas of focus, responsibilities, and requirements are quite different. If you’re interested in a career in mental health, comparing and contrasting LCSWs vs. MFTs can help you decide which path to pursue.

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What Is an LCSW?

Social workers help people deal with various life situations and challenges, such as unemployment, child adoption, or a terminal illness diagnosis. A licensed clinical social worker is a social worker who is licensed to diagnose and treat clients with mental, behavioral, and emotional health issues. It is the most common license among social workers.

LCSWs work with clients to develop strategies to change behavior and handle difficult situations. They may work with other healthcare professionals, such as physicians, to develop treatment plans for their clients. They may direct clients to additional resources, such as support groups or other mental health practitioners. They may also provide treatment in the form of individual, group, or family therapy.

Clinical social workers are the most prevalent mental health providers in the country; there are more clinically trained social workers than psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Because of the broad nature of social work, LCSWs can work in various specialties, such as children and families, substance abuse, mental health, and healthcare.

LCSWs work in various settings, including the following:

  • Hospitals
  • Clinics, particularly those for people with substance abuse issues
  • Private practice
  • Schools and universities
  • Welfare agencies, particularly those for children or people with disabilities
  • Community mental health agencies

LCSW vs. LMSW

It’s also important to distinguish an LCSW from a licensed master social worker (LMSW). An LMSW is another common license and career path for social workers. Like LCSWs, they provide counseling and case management services in situations related to mental health, terminal illness, addiction, or domestic abuse.

The main distinction between the two is that LCSWs can independently provide clinical social work services to clients, including diagnosis and treatment, while LMSWs can only provide clinical services under the supervision of a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or an LCSW.

Learn More about the differences: LCSW vs LMSW

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What Is an MFT?

While social work is a broad professional field, the term marriage and family therapy refers to a more specific field of study. A marriage and family therapist, also known as a licensed marriage and family therapist, is a mental health professional trained to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples, and family systems.

MFTs apply a holistic perspective to healthcare; they view mental and emotional issues as part of a larger system rather than in isolation. By focusing on relationships and dialogue, MFTs help clients develop strategies to address complex personal issues and enhance their interpersonal relationships through improved communication and understanding.

Marriage and family therapists can work in a variety of settings, reflecting the versatility and demand for their expertise:

  • Private practice
  • Outpatient mental health and substance abuse centers
  • Hospitals
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Social service agencies
  • Schools and academic settings
  • Correctional facilities
  • Military bases and facilities

These diverse work environments allow MFTs to serve a wide range of clients, offering flexible, context-specific therapies tailored to the needs of individuals and groups. Whether aiding families navigating the challenges of mental illness or helping couples enhance their relationships, MFTs provide crucial support in many facets of mental health care.

What Is an LCSW Degree?

To become an LCSW, an individual must first earn a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an accredited program. The curriculum of an MSW program covers a wide range of topics including ethics, social justice, human behavior theories, and evidence-based interventions. Specialized clinical training during the MSW program is essential, as it prepares the student for practical, real-world situations in diverse settings.

After obtaining their MSW, aspiring LCSWs must complete a period of supervised clinical experience, typically ranging from two to three years post-graduation, and pass a comprehensive licensing exam to apply for state licensure.

This professional pathway is distinguished by its focus on both direct client interventions and broader social advocacy, addressing mental, emotional, and behavioral issues within the context of individuals' environments. LCSWs are trained to provide a range of services, including psychotherapy, crisis intervention, case management, and human services consulting, often addressing complex social issues such as poverty, abuse, or mental health.

The LCSW designation opens a wide array of career opportunities in settings that require high-level clinical training and the ability to work autonomously in therapeutic and advocacy roles. With their extensive training, LCSWs are equipped to make a significant impact on individual lives and communities, addressing mental health needs with a deep understanding of the social contexts that influence well-being.

What Is an MFT Degree?

Earning an advanced degree is a requirement for both LCSWs and MFTs. MFTs typically hold a marriage and family therapy counseling degree.

Generally, an MFT degree refers to a master’s degree in family therapy; marriage and family therapy; or couples, marriage, and family therapy, as well as a master’s in counseling degree with a marriage and family therapy emphasis. These degrees can be Master of Arts (MA) or Master of Science (MS) degrees.

Though they may go by different names, these degrees serve the same purpose: training students in psychotherapy for families. These programs educate students on how marriages, families, and relationships function and how those relationships can impact mental and emotional health.

While an MFT-focused degree is most common, therapists may also hold an advanced degree in psychology or a related mental health field. A bachelor’s degree in most subjects is typically sufficient to enter one of these programs.

MFT students study various aspects of families and family psychology. Their studies cover a wide range of subjects pertaining to families, including the following:

  • Family crises, such as addiction or domestic violence
  • Divorce
  • Couples counseling
  • Cross-cultural psychology
  • Sexual dysfunction

Anyone seeking to practice as an MFT needs to have an advanced degree from an accredited program. Numerous organizations are responsible for accreditation, including the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE), the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), and the Masters in Psychology and Counseling Accreditation Council (MPCAC).

To become licensed, therapists must accrue thousands of hours of clinical experience under supervision and pass a state licensing examination. This extensive training equips LMFTs with the unique skills necessary for addressing the intricate dynamics within relationships affected by behavioral, psychological, and emotional issues.

  • Read More: How to Become an MFT
  • Benefits of Earning an LCSW or MFT Degree Online

    If you’re interested in becoming an LCSW or an MFT, pursuing a degree online comes with many benefits. Students in online programs experience a greater degree of independence and flexibility, making it ideal for those who want to earn a degree while working, caring for family, or meeting other obligations.

    Technological advancements have greatly improved the quality of online instruction. Students in these programs often find that the curriculum is just as advanced as in-person learning and that the level of interaction is equal to what they’d experience in a traditional learning environment. Additionally, many online degree programs hold the same accreditations as their on-ground counterparts.

    Learn More About CACREP and MPCAC Accreditation

  • What's the Difference: CACREP vs. MPCAC
  • MFT vs. LCSW: Which Is Right for You?

    LCSWs and LMFTs are vital to the provision of quality mental, emotional, and behavioral health care. The U.S. has more than 70,000 marriage and family therapists and more than 700,000 social workers, according to the BLS. There are about 250,000 clinical social workers, according to the American Board of Clinical Social Work.

    If you’re interested in a career in mental health, deciding between these two paths — LMFT vs. LCSW — can be difficult. It’s important to understand what each role entails, including the prerequisites to land the job. Examining the job market and average salary for each profession can also help you make an informed decision.

    LMFT vs. LCSW: Requirements          

    Some of the requirements for becoming LCSWs and LMFTs are similar, such as educational background, while others are quite different.

    Education

    An advanced degree is required for either role. LCSWs need to hold a Master of Social Work (MSW). LMFTs must also have a master’s degree, though they have a little more leeway in picking a field of study. While a master’s in marriage and family therapy is most common, advanced degrees in psychology or a related mental health field are also acceptable.

    Regarding an undergraduate education, a bachelor’s degree in most fields is sufficient to enter a master’s program for either role. For LCSWs, a bachelor’s in social work is most common. Degrees in related fields, such as public policy and social services, psychology, or sociology, can also help prepare students for an MSW program. Students looking to quickly advance their education may be interested in an accelerated online MSW program.

    Training

    Both roles require some amount of clinical training after earning a master’s degree. LMFTs gain hands-on experience through supervised clinical work, typically in the form of an internship or a residency. Working under the supervision of a licensed professional, these experiences help them learn how to provide family therapy, group therapy, psychotherapy, and other types of interventions.

    Clinical social workers need to have at least two years of supervised clinical experience to earn a license, often through an internship. Their training can take place in various settings depending on their chosen specialty and career goals, including schools, hospitals, community service organizations, or social service agencies. 

    Licensing

    The final step for LCSWs and LMFTs is to become licensed. Every state requires MFTs to have a license to practice. The qualifications for licensure are a master’s degree and between 2,000 and 4,000 hours of post-degree clinical training. Therapists also need to pass a state-recognized exam and typically need to meet annual continuing education requirements, which vary by state, to earn a license. The most popular license is the licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) license. Some states require LMFTs to have direct contact with clients to get their license. Check out our guide on LMFT programs by state to learn more.

    Clinical social workers need to be licensed in every state, and some states require licensure or certification for nonclinical social workers as well. The qualifications for licensure are a master’s in social work and a minimum of two years (or between 2,000 and 4,000 hours) of clinical training, as well as passing a clinical exam. LCSWs also need to earn continuing education credits to maintain their license in most states. Once licensed, social workers will have the opportunity to work in a variety of settings, as well as open up their own practice as a licensed independent social worker (LISW).

    Though each state has its own licensing requirements, transferring a license between states is possible. The requirements for LCSWs are relatively uniform, so transferring is generally simpler, with little to no additional requirements. LMFT requirements tend to vary between states, so transferring may entail completing additional training hours; passing an exam; or fulfilling other requirements, such as a background check.

    LCSW vs. LMFT: Responsibilities      

    Though LMFTs and LCSWs both provide support to those with mental or emotional health issues, the specific job description and duties for each role are quite different.

    LCSW

    An LCSW performs many of the same functions as other social workers — helping people solve and manage various problems in their day-to-day lives — with the added responsibility of diagnosing and treating mental, behavioral, and emotional health disorders.

    An LCSW’s typical day often includes the following duties:

    • Evaluating and diagnosing clients for mental or emotional health conditions or substance abuse issues
    • Crafting treatment plans for clients, sometimes collaborating with other healthcare professionals
    • Assisting clients in securing social service resources
    • Providing counseling to individuals, families, or small groups
    • Maintaining client records
    • Supervising LMSWs in clinical social work responsibilities

    LCSWs can work in various specialties and environments, including with children and families or in healthcare or school settings.

    LMFT

    The scope of an LMFT’s job is narrower than an LCSW’s. The work primarily focuses on helping people manage issues with their family, marriage, and other relationships. An LMFT may work with individuals, couples, and families, evaluating the impact that these various relationships have on a person’s mental health.

    An LMFT’s responsibilities include the following:

    • Encouraging clients to talk about their thoughts, emotions, and experiences
    • Helping clients adjust to difficult life situations, such as divorce and unemployment
    • Guiding clients in making decisions about the future
    • Working with clients to develop strategies and skills to change their thoughts and behavior, addressing issues such as low self-esteem, addiction, and depression
    • Referring clients to other community resources or services, such as support groups or inpatient treatment facilities

    LMFTs employ various techniques to help clients, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Using CBT, they help clients identify harmful thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and teach them how to replace those patterns with more positive, productive ones.

    Many LMFTs work in private practice. They may also work in mental health centers; hospitals; substance abuse treatment facilities; and employee assistance programs, which are mental health programs that businesses provide to their employees.

    LMFT vs. LCSW: Salary and Job Outlook       

    LCSWs and MFTs both have above-average salaries and projected above-average job growth, according to the BLS.

    LMFT

    The median annual wage for MFTs was $58,510 in May 2022. During that period, industry-based salaries for MFTs were as follows: 

    • State government (excluding education and hospitals): $86,030
    • Outpatient care centers: $61,390
    • Individual and family services: $50,700
    • Offices of other health practitioners: $49,190

    Employment of marriage and family therapists is projected to grow by 15% between 2022 and 2032, much faster than the projected national average for all occupations, according to the BLS. One of the main factors driving this growth is the increasing use of integrated care: a treatment modality in which specialists help a patient address multiple problems at one time. In integrated care, MFTs may coordinate with substance abuse or mental health counselors to address a patient’s issues as a team.

    MFT salary potential will depend on the state that the therapist is licensed and practicing in. Popular states for MFTs include: 

    Discover more MFT degrees by checking out our degree guides:

    LCSW

    The median annual wage for all social workers was $58,380 in May 2022, according to the BLS. The industry-based salary figures for social workers were as follows:

    • Local government: $64,550
    •  Educational services: $62,980
    • State government: $54,600
    • Individual and family services: $48,550
    • Community and vocational rehabilitation services: $46,650

    Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow by 7% from 2022 to 2032. While projected job growth varies slightly by specialty, most sectors are expected to see above-average growth over the same period, according to the BLS:

    • Child, family, and school social workers: 5%
    • Healthcare social workers: 10%
    • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: 11%

    Various factors will drive this growth, including an increased need to help aging populations and rising demand for treatment for mental illness and substance abuse.

    LCSW vs. LMFT: Clientele

    Licensed clinical social workers and marriage and family therapists are both vital professionals in the field of mental health, but they serve distinct client groups with different approaches and emphases. 

    LCSWs are trained in a variety of therapeutic modalities and social theories which prepare them to address a broad range of issues including mental health, emotional disorders, and crisis intervention. They work with individuals, families, groups, and communities, focusing on the relationship between a person’s environment and their well-being. LCSWs are often found in roles that emphasize social advocacy, case management, and connecting clients with community resources alongside providing therapeutic care.

    In contrast, LMFTs specialize in treating mental and emotional disorders within the context of marital and family relationships. Their training is specifically geared toward understanding the dynamics of couples and family systems. LMFTs focus on the interpersonal relationships and communication patterns that affect mental health. Their clientele typically consists of couples facing marital challenges, families working through conflicts or communication issues, and individuals whose symptoms are best addressed within the context of their relationships with significant others.

    While both LCSWs and LMFTs can treat similar issues such as depression, anxiety, and stress, their approaches differ based on their training and focus. LCSWs might approach these issues from a broader perspective, considering a range of social and environmental factors, whereas LMFTs might focus more on how these issues are influenced by and impact family dynamics and relationships. Thus, the choice between an LCSW and an LMFT may depend on the client’s specific needs — whether they require broad social support and resource linkage, or specialized therapy focused on interpersonal relationships.

    FAQ on LCSW vs. LMFT

    Do both LCSWs and LMFTs earn the same amount of money? 

    Salaries for LCSWs and LMFTs can vary based on factors such as location, experience, and the setting in which they practice. Generally, LCSWs may have a slightly higher earning potential due to their broader scope of practice and ability to work in various public and private sectors.

    Is it cheaper to earn an LCSW degree than an LMFT degree? 

    The cost of earning an LCSW or an LMFT degree depends largely on the institution attended and the length of the program. Both roles typically require a master’s degree in social work or marriage and family therapy, respectively. Costs can be comparable, but variations exist depending on the specific program and its requirements.

    Which licensure is fastest to earn: an LCSW or an LMFT? 

    The time to earn licensure as an LCSW or an LMFT can vary by state due to different postgraduate supervised experience requirements. Typically, both credentials require two to three years of supervised clinical experience post-master’s degree. The specific hours required and the availability of supervision can affect the speed of completing licensure requirements.

    Can LMFT and LCSW diagnose disorders? 

    Both LMFTs and LCSWs are trained and legally authorized to diagnose mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Their training includes assessment techniques and the use of diagnostic criteria to identify such disorders, enabling them to provide appropriate therapeutic interventions and referrals.

    LCSW or MFT: Choose Your Path

    LCSWs and MFTs are crucial members of the nation’s mental health workforce, providing support to millions of Americans. These professionals are highly educated, well-trained, and highly skilled. Earning an advanced online degree can help you gain the knowledge and skills you need to begin a rewarding career in these fields.

    Sources:
    American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, About Marriage and Family Therapists
    American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapist: The Family-Friendly Mental Health Professionals
    American Board of Clinical Social Work, What Is Clinical Social Work?
    Association of Social Work Boards, Compare License Requirements
    Indeed, LMSW vs. LCSW: Duties, Salary and Qualifications
    Indeed, MSW Degrees vs. MFT Degrees: Definitions, Similarities and Differences
    National Association of Social Workers, About Social Workers
    National Association of Social Workers, Clinical Social Work
    National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Illness
    PayScale, Average Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) Salary
    Project on Government Secrecy, “The Mental Health Workforce: A Primer”
    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists
    U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers

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