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

It can be confusing when you’re met with all the acronyms associated with counseling professionals. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), licensed mental health counselors (LMHC) and licensed professional counselors (LPC) have a lot in common; they share the mission of being there when people need help. Read on to learn more about the differences between a licensed mental health counselor and a licensed clinical social worker.

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Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)

What Does an LMHC Do?

By becoming a licensed mental health counselor, you would work with people who are experiencing problems in their lives. Those problems might stem from mental illness—depression or anxiety, for example—or from struggles with drugs, alcohol, stress, family issues, trauma or fitting in with society in one or more ways. They work in a variety of different situations, including private practice, schools, social service agencies and mental health clinics. A therapeutic relationship with an LMHC can span months or years depending on the individual’s needs.

LMHC Education Requirements

In addition to an undergraduate degree (typically a bachelor of science in psychology or sociology), mental health counselors typically must have a minimum of a master’s degree and a certain number of hours of supervised clinical experience. Master’s degrees typically are in areas such as counseling, school counseling, or marriage and family therapy. The amount of required clinical experience differs by state; it can range from one to four years or from 1,600 to 4,000 hours. In most states, the requirement is two years or 3,000 hours. The final step is passing your national licensure exam and any required state exam.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

What Does an LCSW Do?

By becoming a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), you would also provide counseling services and often work with people who have mental illnesses, but you may also work with clients who need community social services. An LCSW might help homeless people find food, shelter and health care; they may work with child and family services (in both routine or crisis situations); and they connect services with those who need child care, food stamps, rent assistance, legal assistance or help finding a job.

LCSW Education Requirements

As with LMHCs, licensed clinical social workers typically need a bachelor’s degree (most likely in psychology, sociology or a related health field) and a master’s degree to become licensed. You’ll be required to complete a practicum—a certain number of hours in “field education,” typically 900 to 1,200, which will start while you’re still in school. These field hours—also called internships—can be accomplished at many community social services organizations, such as counseling centers, human services agencies and mental health facilities. After fulfilling these requirements, social work applicants must gain 3,000 to 4,000 hours of supervised experience over two years, depending on the state. An applicant becomes a licensed social worker after passing their board exams.

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)

What Does an LPC Do?

A licensed professional counselor serves much the same function as licensed mental health counselors (LMHC). They work with clients to resolve mental health and life issues and set goals. They might work in schools, mental health facilities or private practice. Their primary role is to listen and talk with their clients, diagnose problems and help guide those clients to find a solution and/or growth that addresses their problems. Both LPCs and LMHCs professions adhere to specific ethics and confidentiality standards; in fact, the main difference can be that different states use different titles for counselors.

LPC Education Requirements

As with the other two positions, LPCs must earn bachelor’s (commonly in psychology and sociology) and master’s degrees (commonly in a specific psychology concentration) at minimum, as well as a certain number of hours of supervised experience, typically 3,000, depending on the state. They also must pass a licensing exam.

LPC vs LCSW vs LMHC Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) keeps statistics on occupational outlooks, salaries and required levels of education. For licensed clinical social workers, the median salary is $50,470 per year, though social worker pay varies by state; in California, for example, the mean wage is $71,020, while in South Carolina, it is $45,700.

LMHCs (and, depending on state, LPCs) earn a median wage of $46,240 per year, which varies by location, for example the mean is $54,580 in California and $44,820 in Florida. The general category of “mental health counselors” has a mean wage nationwide of $46,050, ranging from $39,060 for those working in residential and mental-health facilities to $55,880 for those working in local government positions.

Counselor vs. Social Worker Career Outlook

Both counselors and social workers can look forward to a robust job market, according to the BLS. The category for substance-abuse, behavioral disorder and mental health counselors” is expected to grow by 22% between 2018 and 2028, which the BLS terms “much faster than average.” The job outlook for social workers is for growth of 11% between 2018 and 2028, also categorized as much faster than average.

Choose the Best Social Work or Counseling Career for You

If you’re having difficulty deciding whether to go into counseling or social work, here are some things to consider:

  • Who do you imagine as your clients? If they are people who need help with mental health or coping skills (depression, anxiety, ADHD, behavioral disorders, alcoholism/addiction, relationship issues and so on), you might lean toward counseling. If they are people who need help from community agencies, vulnerable populations who may be poor, need food stamps or help finding housing, you might lean toward social work.
  • What kind of problem-solving relationships do you envision with your clients? Counseling can be a longer, more open-ended relationship in which you get to know more about people’s thoughts and emotions as they explore why they are the way they are. While social work also involves counseling, it can often be more results-oriented; it’s rewarding to be able to connect an individual or a family with services they need right now.
  • Imagine that you have a client who has been physically abused. A social worker might find temporary shelter for that client, help them get rent assistance and/or food stamps, and find a job or child care. A counselor might work with that client psychologically, helping heal the trauma of abuse and the mental health issues surrounding an abusive relationship. Do you see yourself in one role more than the other?
  • Which curriculum most interests you? Explore your options for master's in mental health counseling programs and master’s in social work Visit a few schools virtually and look at their curriculum. You’ll most likely find a program that tips the scale one way or the other.
  • Where do you want to work? Do a wide-ranging job search on “counselor,” and the same search on “social worker,” and learn what kinds of jobs and workplaces are available. It’s nothing more than a snapshot in time, but it could give you some inspiration on which way to go in terms of a mental health counselor career and a social worker career. Both careers can be challenging and fulfilling; the primary reason for your choice should be which direction most suits you.

Sponsored

Earn your Master’s in Mental Health Counseling from NYU Steinhardt

  • No GRE Required
  • As few as 21 months to complete
Learn more about Counseling@NYU

Earn Your Mental Health Counseling Master's Online from Northwestern University

  • No GRE required
  • As few as 18 months to complete
Discover Counseling@Northwestern

Earn your MSW online from Fordham University

  • Pursue the degree on a full-time or part-time track.
  • Traditional and advanced standing online MSW options are available.

* Consult your Admissions Counselor for information about Full-time cohort availability surrounding COVID-19.

Discover Fordham University

The Master of Social Work online program from Baylor University

  • No GRE required
  • Complete in as few as 12 months
  • Council on Social Work Education-accredited
Discover MSW@Baylor

Online Social Work at CWRU

  • Ranked the No. 9 school of social work by U.S. News & World Report in 2019
  • CSWE-accredited
  • No GRE requirement
  • MSSA is recognized as an equivalent to an MSW
Discover Online Social Work at CWRU

Online MSW Program from Top-Ranked USC

  • Minimum completion time: 12 months with a BSW
  • Accredited by the CSWE
  • Dedicated field placement specialists identify in-person placements near students’ communities
Discover MSW@USC

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Last Updated August 2020