Clinical Mental Health Counseling vs Marriage and Family Therapy

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2019 19.2% of adults in the United States had received mental health treatment during the past 12 months. With such a significant need for treatment, numerous counseling specializations have emerged that focus on clients’ specific treatment needs.

If you want to focus your counseling career on helping clients individually or in their relationships, you might consider comparing clinical mental health counseling vs marriage and family therapy. More specifically:

  • Clinical mental health counselors - also known as licensed mental health counselors (LMHC) or licensed professional counselors (LPC) - focus on the needs of individuals, families, and groups.
  • Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) address the needs of people specifically within the context of marriage, couple, and family systems.
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LMHC vs. LMFT

In broad terms, clinical mental health counselors focus on their clients, while licensed marriage and family therapists focus on their clients’ relationships.

LMHCs can choose to direct their skills in different ways. For example, they can:

  • Diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders
  • Work to prevent disorders
  • Conduct research to identify new treatment approaches

These clinical mental health counselors offer a variety of treatments, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy.

In contrast to a clinical mental health counselor, an LMFT specifically focuses on the roles that clients play in important relationships in their lives, such as with their spouses or other family members.

Working within that context, marriage and family therapists offer services such as:

  • Child and adult psychotherapy
  • Couples therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Online Programs to Consider

    Many higher education institutions offer online programs to prepare students for clinical mental health counseling and marriage and family therapy. LMHCs and LMFTs typically earn master’s or doctoral degrees. The website of CACREP, an accreditation organization for graduate degree programs in counseling, offers a tool to search for accredited programs.

    You also can find more information about online degree programs below.

    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 LMHC?

    Most clinical mental health counselors conduct therapy with clients to treat various issues such as anxiety, depression, or stress. Therefore, strong communication skills are critical. They need to be able to assess their clients’ needs and select appropriate treatment plans. They also must be able to recognize when to refer clients to other professionals such as psychologists or psychiatrists.

    Clinical mental health counselors can choose to focus on working with specific populations such as the elderly or children. They also can be found working in a variety of settings. Schools, government agencies, correctional institutions, residential care facilities, and private practice settings are just a few of the settings where clinical mental health counselors can practice.

    Providing therapy may be the entry point for clinical mental health counselors, but it is not necessarily what they will do forever. For example, some eventually move into teaching, consulting, or conducting research.

    What Is an LMFT?

    Marriage and family therapists provide services to address a range of issues, such as substance abuse, depression, or child/adolescent challenges, and how those issues affect relationships.

    They can work with individuals, families, and couples in relationships, and they provide services such as diagnosis and treatment, psychotherapy, and group therapy.

    Strong communication skills and an aptitude for understanding individual viewpoints, conflict resolution, instruction, and leadership are also important. Most marriage and family therapy is short term, with an average duration of 12 sessions.

    While marriage and family therapists can work in private practice, they also can provide their services in a variety of other settings, such as mental health centers and hospitals.

    Benefits of an LMHC and an LMFT

    If you are choosing between working in clinical mental health counseling or marriage and family therapy, consideration of their respective benefits can be worthwhile.

    Benefits of an LMHC

    Perhaps most important, becoming a clinical mental health counselor offers the opportunity to help others improve their lives, which can be extremely rewarding. In addition, for people who prefer working one-on-one with clients, becoming an LMHC allows them to focus on individuals. LMHCs are also often surprised to find that providing therapy enables them to learn more about themselves.

    The employment outlook for clinical mental health counselors is bright. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has projected that employment of substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors will increase 25% from 2019 to 2029, a significantly higher growth rate than the 4% projected for all occupations.

    Benefits of an LMFT

    LMFTs find the opportunity to help others improve their relationships to be highly rewarding. They also have the chance to work independently with clients of all backgrounds. In addition, LMFTs discover that the practice of providing therapy can benefit their own growth and assist them in dealing with issues in their personal relationships.

    As with LPCs, the employment forecast for LMFTs is good. The BLS has projected that employment of marriage and family therapists will grow 22% from 2019 to 2029.

    Educational Requirements

    Whether you work in clinical mental health counseling or marriage and family therapy, you will need to have the appropriate academic credentials. To become an LMHC, most individuals earn a master’s or doctoral degree.
    Likewise, most individuals who become LMFTs earn a master’s or doctoral degree, or participate in postgraduate clinical training programs.

    Classes to Take

    Graduate degree programs that lead to becoming an clinical mental health counselor or a licensed marriage and family therapist offer classes that can equip individuals with the skills necessary for success.

    Classes That Train LMHCs

    Examples of classes within a mental health counseling degree program include:

    • Counseling theory classes that enable students to develop their personal models of counseling
    • Assessment and appraisal classes that train students on testing instruments, test administration and scoring, and common individual and group tests
    • Counseling internships through which students gain supervised experience in applying the principles and techniques of a particular specialization
    • Elective classes in areas such as grief counseling or play therapy

    Classes That Train LMFTs

    Examples of classes that graduate degree programs offer to train LMFTs include:

    • Classes that focus on psychotherapy involving adolescents and their families
    • Classes on diagnosis and treatment planning in family and cultural contexts
    • Classes oriented toward group and family processes and strategies for preventing interpersonal and system dysfunction
    • Practicum classes through which students gain supervised experience providing services to individuals, couples, and families

    Ask the Expert: Clinical Mental Health Counseling vs Marriage and Family Therapy Degree Paths

    Is there a certain track within a counseling program that you should follow to become an LPC or LMFT?

    “State licensing bureaus have specific documentation required for each of these types of licensure, requiring specific courses focused on each of these specialty areas. MA programs also have some similarities in the coursework between these two disciplines, and some differences, primarily associated with the number of courses specific to marriage and family systems theories.

    The LPC/LCPC licensure will have a focus on clinical mental health issues. Both MA programs would address mental health services as related to couples, families, and individuals. The LMFT track would increase the number of family/couples courses, while the LPC/LCPC courses focus on clinical mental health services across age groups and focus on understanding how to provide individual therapy sessions.”

    — Dr. Julie Smirl, Assistant Professor in Bradley University’s Online Masters of Counseling Program

LMHC and LMFT Licensure

Licensure requirements for LPCs and LMFTs are established at the state level. While specific licensure requirements can vary by state, the general requirements across states share many similarities.

LMHC Licensing Requirements

State requirements for LMHC licensure usually include:

  • Completion of a master’s or doctoral program from an accredited higher education institution
  • At least 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience during a two-year period
  • A passing result on the National Counselor Examination (NCE) or another examination recognized by the state licensing entity
  • Compliance with the state licensing entity’s requirements in areas such as ethics and continuing education

LMFT Licensing Requirements

State requirements for family and marriage counseling licensure usually include:

  • Completion of a master’s or doctoral program from an accredited higher education institution
  • At least two years of supervised clinical experience 
  • A passing result on the examination set forth by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards or another examination recognized by the state licensing entity
  • Compliance with the state licensing entity’s requirements in areas such as ethics and continuing education

Careers Available to You 

Career choices for LPCs are numerous. For example, they can choose to work in private practice, residential treatment centers, schools, nonprofit organizations, government entities, prisons, or hospitals. LMHCs are even beginning to provide services through telemedicine. According to the BLS, median annual pay for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $46,240 in 2019.

LMFTs also have a wealth of career options. In addition to working in private practice, they can pursue careers in places such as outpatient and inpatient centers, schools, social service agencies, treatment centers, residential care facilities, legal and correctional systems, or employee assistance programs. According to the BLS, median annual pay for marriage and family therapists was $49,610 in 2019.

Consider Pursuing a Career as an LMHC or LMFT

If you value the rewards of helping people and improving their lives, then pursuing a career in clinical mental health counseling or marriage and family therapy could be a good choice for you. Both clinical mental health counselors and licensed marriage and family therapists have the opportunity to work in a variety of environments with people from different backgrounds. They also perform work that has a beneficial effect on society.

While becoming an LMHC or an LMFT takes effort, educational opportunities are available and employment prospects are promising. In pursuing the path of an LMHC or an LMFT, you may find the career that you were meant to have. 

Interested in learning more about becoming a LMHC or LMFT? Check out our degree pages below:

 

 

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 Counseling Association, Who Are Licensed Professional Counselors

CACREP, Find a Program

CACREP, What Is CACREP?

Career Trend, “What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Mental Health Counselor?”

Counseling Today, “Choosing Your Path Wisely”

Houston Chronicle, “Good Skills for Being a Family Counselor”

Houston Chronicle, “The Rewards of Being a Therapist”

Houston Chronicle, “Where Can Licensed Professional Counselors Work?”

Licensed Professional Counselors Board of Examiners, Rules, Standards and Procedures

National Center for Health Statistics, “Mental Health Treatment Among Adults: United States, 2019”

Our Lady of the Lake University Academic Catalog, Counseling: Clinical Mental Health Counseling, MA

Our Lady of the Lake University Academic Catalog, Psychology Specialization: Marriage and Family Therapy Concentration, MS

Psychology Today, “Marriage and Family Therapy”

Public Health Online, About: LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor)

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors

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