LMFT vs Mental Health Counselor (LPC) - What’s the Difference?

Counselors provide treatment and advise patients who are experiencing mental, behavioral and emotional issues. If you’re interested in helping others through counseling, there is a wide variety of counseling positions you can pursue. These include school counselors, career counselors, child and adolescent counselors and substance abuse counselors.

While counselors work with clients to resolve specific issues, therapists help their clients determine the cause of a mental state and work to change the attitude or habit that is causing the problem. Much of the work of counselors and therapists overlap. The nuances are usually determined by the population a therapist or counselor is working with.

For example, mental health counselors work with those who have mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. Marriage and family therapists work with couples and families who are undergoing issues ranging from infidelity to addiction within a family.

If you’re considering a career in mental health counseling versus marriage and family therapy, learning about the key differences can help you decide. If you’re considering school and wondering whether to pursue a career as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) or a licensed professional counselor (LPC), get details on what the programs entail.

What Are LMFTs and What Do They Do?

Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) help couples and family members manage problems within their relationships. Many LMFTs work in private practices and meet regularly with clients to learn about experiences and emotions that are causing issues.

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Often, LMFTs use a practice called cognitive behavioral therapy with their clients. In this goal-oriented approach, an LMFT helps clients learn how beliefs, feelings and thoughts are affecting their actions. The LMFT teaches them to recognize destructive patterns and work to change them.

LMFTs may work with individuals one-on-one who are going through couple- or family-related issues, with multiple related parties on a one-on-one basis, or with couples or groups together in the same room. Even when they’re working with an individual, the LMFT focuses on family or couple dynamics to guide recommendations. LMFTs may work in conjunction with social workers, especially when there are family issues such as abuse or addiction present.

What Are LPCs and What Do They Do?

Licensed professional counselors (LPCs), who may specialize as mental health counselors, provide treatment and support to those who are experiencing mental health issues like stress, low- self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and grief. LPCs work with individuals as well as couples, families and groups who are undergoing stressful situations.

LPCs evaluate their clients’ mental health and create treatment goals and plans. They work with their clients to help them develop the skills they need to change their behavior and achieve improved mental health outcomes.

LPCs may work in private practices as well as in hospitals, residential mental health facilities and outpatient mental health centers.

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LMFT and LPC Differences and Similarities

The main differences between an LMFT versus LPC are the populations they work with and the issues that are being treated. LMFTs are more likely to treat issues in marriage and family dynamics. LPCs treat mental health issues that may be rooted in a variety of causes, though some LPCs will work with clients who have mental health issues stemming from familial or spousal causes.

It’s the goal of an LMFT to create better harmony within couples or families. The goal of an LPC is to help the individuals or groups they work with to improve habits affecting their mental health.

While there are differences, there are many similarities between LMFTs and LPCs. These include:

  • Both help people live happier, more fulfilling lives.
  • Both help clients improve their mental health.
  • Both may work in similar environments, including private practices, residential facilities, outpatient facilities and hospitals.

The skills that are needed for success in LMFT and LPC careers are also similar. All counselors and therapists must possess the ability to effectively:

  • Empathize
  • Communicate
  • Listen
  • Build trust
  • Analyze
  • Problem solve

LMFTs and LPCs need to be organized and professional. They must maintain confidentiality when necessary and provide services that are best tailored to the clients they’re working with.

In both LMFT and LPC roles, these therapists and counselors are able to make a positive difference in the lives of their clients every day. What type of role makes sense for you depends on the types of people you want to work with and the types of issues you want to help resolve.

Education

Most licensure programs for LMFT and LPC roles require a relevant master’s degree. For LMFTs, candidates need to have a master’s in a related field. This can include a master’s in marriage and family therapy or a psychotherapeutic-related master’s degree. For LPCs, a graduate degree in mental health counseling is required.

What is the difference between an MFT and a mental health counseling degree?

Marriage and family therapists (MFTs) and mental health counseling master’s degree programs are similar in the time required to complete, usually ranging from around two to three years. Both programs will require students to complete clinical experience during the program, which is usually in the form of an internship under the supervision of a licensed counselor or therapist. After completion of both MFT and mental health counseling master’s degrees, graduates will be able to apply for the licensure required to begin practicing.

The difference between the programs is coursework. In MFT programs, students focus on subjects related to family systems and couples therapy, including child and adolescent counseling, trauma and grief work, and human sexuality.

In mental health counseling master’s degree programs, students learn about multiculturalism and diversity; theories of psychopathology and other systems; biological and development bases of behavior; and social, organizational and community basis of behavior.

In both MFT and mental health counseling master’s degree programs, students typically learn about laws and ethics, case conceptualization and formulation, mental health disorders, and research methods and statistics.

Job outlook

The job outlook for LPCs and LMFTs is growing at a faster rate than average compared to all positions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for behavioral disorder, substance abuse and mental health counselors is projected to grow 22% between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than average. More than 68,500 new jobs are expected to be added in that time period, to the 304,500 jobs there were in 2018.

The BLS reports there is also a projected growth of 22% for marriage and family therapist jobs between 2018 and 2028, which is much faster than average. There are 12,300 new jobs expected to be added to the 55,300 marriage and family therapist jobs there were in 2018.

Salaries

Salaries for LMFTs and LPCs vary and usually depend on the environment the professional works in. The BLS reports the 2018 median salary for behavioral disorder, substance abuse and mental health counselors was $44,630 per year. The highest 10% earned more than $72,990. The median 2018 pay for counselors working in government was $51,690, and it was $48,310 for those working in state, local and private hospitals. Salary may increase depending on geographic location and experience.

The BLS reports the 2018 median pay was $50,090 per year for marriage and family therapists. The highest 10% earned more than $82,240. The 2018 median pay for marriage and family therapists who worked in state government, excluding education and hospitals, was $69,900. It was $51,270 for marriage and family therapists who worked in outpatient care centers.

Make a Difference in the Lives of Others by Becoming an LMFT or LPC

Counselors and therapists get to help individuals, couples and families improve their behaviors, emotions and mental health. U.S. News & World Report ranked the top 100 jobs in 2020, and both positions landed spots: Marriage and family therapist ranked #51, while mental health counselors ranked #71.

There are dozens of online programs offered by universities around the country to help people become counselors and therapists. Online master’s programs enable you to learn while you continue to work full-time and study without having to relocate to a school.