A Complete Guide to Becoming an LCSW vs LMHC. Steps Towards Licensure: Education, Exams, Duties and Much More

There is natural overlap between the scope of practice of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). However the fact that these are separate classes of licensure in states across the nation highlights the obvious: that there are also important differences between LCSWs and LMHCs.

While each state defines its own scope of practice for LCSWs and LMHCs it is possible to make a comparison between these two professions on a general level nationally.

Common LCSW and LMHC overlap

The similarities between these two professions start with education: both require a master’s-level of education for entry. There are also common overlaps of core curriculum content that focuses on subjects including:

  • Diagnosis and treatment of emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders
  • Social and cultural understanding
  • Ethical treatment practices
  • Biological basis of behavior

As these educational overlaps would indicate, LCSWs and LMHCs also share common methods of treatment for clients. Both professionals can work independently to diagnose and treat mental and behavioral disorders, and offer their clients therapies that improve their well-being across the lifespan.

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This leads to many LCSWs and LMHCs being employed at similar types of work environments. According to the US Department of Labor about one-fifth of both social workers and LMHCs work in organizations that provide individual and family services.

The procedure for becoming licensed as an LCSW and LMHC is also similar: both require passing a national exam and completing a period of supervised work experience.

Differences between LCSWs and LMHCs

The differences between these two professions start with their educational foundations and extend through to different types of workplace environments.

Differences in education

Becoming an LCSW requires at least a master’s degree in Social Work (MSW), while becoming an LMHC requires a master’s degree in Counseling or a closely related field.

The core content of MSW programs covers topics like:

  • Social policy, advocacy and community resources
  • Culture, society, and inequalities
  • Social work research methods
  • Community mental health
  • Family and child welfare

The core content of a master’s-level Counseling program covers topics like:

  • Lifespan development
  • Psychology, behavioral psychology, and abnormal psychology
  • Psychopathology
  • Individual and group counseling
  • Career, couples, family, and addiction counseling

Differences in Work Environments

The differences in core curriculum highlight important differences between LCSWs and LMHCs when it comes to their professional approaches.

LCSWs have an approach geared towards helping their clients understand their relationship with the wider community. This can involve education, case management, and networking with community resources in addition to diagnosing and treating mental health issues.

LMHCs have an approach that helps their clients understand how their relationship with the wider community affects their own behavior and mental state, and vice-versa. This involves introspective counseling to address specific issues like substance abuse, behavioral disorders, and relationships with specific people like a partner, family member, or colleague. Included among this is also the diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders.

You can see how these different approaches translate into key differences in work environment, but also some similarities. The US Department of Labor reports that nationwide there are a total of 620,370 social workers and 283,540 LMHCs.

Among the nation’s social workers:

  • 20% work with individual and family services organizations
  • 14% work for local governments, such as with local departments of health, and this percentage excludes schools and hospitals
  • 13% work for state governments, such as departments of health and human services, and this percentage excludes schools and hospitals
  • 8% work for outpatient care centers
  • 7% work at elementary and secondary schools
  • Among the nation’s LMHCs:

  • 23% work in outpatient care centers
  • 18% work in individual and family services organizations
  • 12% work at in-patient facilities that treat patients for substance abuse issues, mental health issues, and intellectual and developmental disabilities
  • 10% work at the offices of other health practitioners, such as mental health practitioners
  • 7% work with local governments, such as with a local health department, and this percentage excludes hospitals and schools

These differences in work environment highlight potentially important differences between LCSWs and LMHCs when it comes to joining the workforce. More than a quarter of all social workers work for a state or local government, compared with only 9% for LMHCs. Landing a government job can take longer and involve an extensive interview process that requires you to follow a specific standardized approach. Jobs with the public sector can also be more stable over the long run and offer a more comprehensive benefits package.

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Conversely, jobs in the private sector or with non-profit agencies can be easier to apply for and involve less red-tape for getting hired. They can be more flexible, however long-term employment security can be lower than jobs in the public sector, and benefits packages can range from being extensive to non-existent. The most recent numbers from the US Department of Labor show the average annual salary for social workers is $58,483 compared with $49,950 for LMHCs.

Important resources for LCSWs and LMHCs