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) 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.

Consider an online counseling program: Syracuse University’s CSWE-accredited online Master of Social Work program is preparing the next generation of social work leaders. Learn more.
MA in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine

What Is an LCSW?

The term “marriage and family therapy” refers to a very specific field of study. Social work, on the other hand, is much broader. Social workers help people deal with various life situations and challenges, such as unemployment, child adoption, or a terminal illness diagnosis..

What is an LCSW? An LCSW 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 health care 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 health care.

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
  • 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.

    Consider a Featured Online Counseling Program


    ☰ For detailed degree information, view the guides to:
    Online CACREP Accredited programs | Online MPCAC Accredited programs

    What Is an MFT Degree?

    Earning an advanced degree is a requirement for both LCSWs and MFTs. MFTs typically hold an MFT degree. What is an MFT degree?

    Generally, as a degree, an MFT refers to a master’s in marriage and family therapy. It may also refer to a master of family therapy or a master’s in marriage and family counseling.

    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.

    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).

    While an MFT 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.

    A Growing Field

    The MFT field has gained a lot of ground in the U.S. over the last half century, with a 50-fold increase in the number of therapists since 1970, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Today, more than 60,000 MFTs provide support to nearly 2 million patients. This growth is partly a result of renewed public awareness of the importance of family life and concern over the complex stresses placed on families in a rapidly changing world.

    Benefits of Marriage and Family Therapy

    Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of MFT in improving relationships and treating a wide range of mental, behavioral, and emotional health issues, from alcoholism to depression. According to AAMFT, the satisfaction rate among patients engaged in MFT is exceptionally high, with nearly 90% reporting an improvement in their emotional health after receiving treatment.

    Benefits of Earning an MFT Degree Online

    If you’re interested in becoming an MFT, pursuing an MFT 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, CACREP or MPCAC, two of the main organizations that accredit counseling programs, accredits many online programs. Both organizations currently only accredit advanced degree programs

    MFT vs. LCSW: Which Is Right for You?

    LCSWs and MFTs are vital to the provision of quality mental, emotional, and behavioral health care.  The U.S. has more than 70,000 MFTs and more than 700,000 social workers, according to the BLS. There are between 200,000 and 300,000 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 — MFT 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.

    Requirements          

    Some of the requirements for becoming LCSWs and MFTs 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). An MSW program prepares students by covering key subjects, such as social policies, case management, and mental health counseling, and helps them develop clinical assessment and management skills.

    MFTs 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 MFT 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.

    Training

    Both roles require some amount of clinical training after earning a master’s degree. MFTs 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 MFTs 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 MFTs to have direct contact with clients to get their license.

    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.

    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. MFT 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.

    Responsibilities      

    Though MFTs 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:

    • Evaluate and diagnose clients for mental or emotional health conditions or substance abuse issues.
    • Craft treatment plans for clients, sometimes collaborating with other health care professionals.
    • Assist clients in securing social service resources. 
    • Provide counseling to individuals, families, or small groups.
    • Maintain client records.
    • Supervise LMSWs in clinical social work responsibilities.

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

    MFT

    The scope of an MFT’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 MFT may work with individuals, couples, and families, evaluating the impact that these various relationships have on a person’s mental health.

    An MFT’s responsibilities include the following:

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

    MFTs 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 MFTs 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.

    Salary and Job Outlook       

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

    MFT

    The median annual wage for MFTs was $51,340 in May 2020. During that period, the highest-paying industries for MFTs were: 

    • State government (excluding education and hospitals): $78,450
    • Outpatient care centers: $55,690
    • Individual and family services: $47,590
    • Offices of other health practitioners: $46,630

    Employment of MFTs is projected to grow by 16% between 2020 and 2030, twice as fast as 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.

    LCSW

    The median annual wage for all social workers was $51,760 in May 2020, according to the BLS. The top-paying industries for social workers were:

    • Local government: $57,660 
    • Ambulatory health care services: $52,850

    The BLS doesn’t provide specific salary data for LCSWs. According to PayScale, however, the median base salary for LCSWs was approximately $59,400 as of October 2021.

    Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow by 12% from 2020 to 2030. 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: 13%
    • Health care social workers: 13%
    • Mental health and substance abuse social workers: 15%

    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 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

    List of Programs

    Syracuse University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

    Northwestern University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

    Fordham University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

    University of Southern California 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

    University of Denver 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

    Our Lady of the Lake University 🗹 Online 🗗 Bachelors 🗗 Masters

    Simmons University 🗹 Online

    Howard University 🗹 Online

    Liberty University 🗹 Online

    Northcentral University 🗹 Online Courses Start Weekly

    Baylor University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

    Colorado Christian University 🗹 Online 🗗 Masters

    Capella University 🗹 Online Masters

    Northcentral University 🗹 Online Courses Start Weekly

    Capella University 🗹 Online Masters

    Counseling Career Guide

    Still Looking for a Counseling Degree?

    Here are some of the most popular online counseling programs. On each page you will find a detailed write-up of the program, specific courses, and schools that offer that program that are currently accepting applicants.