LCSW vs. LMHC: Which Licensure Is Right for You?

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You can help individuals overcome challenges by becoming a licensed practitioner in the mental health field. Before becoming a mental health professional, though, you must first obtain the right license. Two pathways to consider are the licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and the licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) licensure. Learn more about the similarities, differences, career pathways, and curriculum before choosing between LCSW vs. LMHC for your career journey.

LCSW vs. LMHC: Similarities and Differences

The licensure pathway, educational courses, and job outlook for LCSWs and LMHCs have key similarities and differences. Understanding how the licenses differ can help you select the best option based on your previous experience and career goals.

What Is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)?

A licensed clinical social worker provides individuals and families with mental health evaluations, emotional support, and case management services. The focus of an LCSW’s practice is often on community and societal challenges and how they affect mental health. Be prepared to work closely with social workers, medical professionals, and other mental health professionals to assist in removing barriers to effective emotional support and mental healthcare.

What Is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)?

An LMHC offers a greater emphasis on individual mental health issues. Licensed mental health counselors can provide group or individual counseling. Their training typically focuses on psychology and lifespan development, exploring the biological and personal factors that may contribute to mental health issues.

Key Similarities

LMHC and LCSW licenses can prepare you to work with individuals needing mental health counseling. You’ll need to earn a master’s degree before earning either licensure, and much of the coursework in both degree programs focuses on mental health diagnosis, counseling, treatment, and research. Both license options are competitive career steps for anyone interested in working closely with patients experiencing mental health challenges.

Key Differences

While the specific differences can depend on the workplace, these two licenses have broad distinctions in training, approach, and areas of expertise:

  • Training: The prerequisite for both degrees is a master’s degree. However, you typically need a master’s degree in social work to qualify for LCSW licensure and a master’s degree in counseling to qualify for LMHC licensure.
  • Approach: LMHCs tend to focus on the individual or group factors of mental health rather than the societal factors. LCSWs, on the other hand, connect individual factors with societal factors and likely work closely with other social work professionals.
  • Area of expertise: LCSWs receive training in case management services and mental health support, while LMHCs use strategies to identify and improve an individual’s mental health.

LMHC vs. LCSW Salary and Job Outlook

LCSW and LMHC licenses can offer rewarding career opportunities and salaries. Explore the similarities and differences in these areas to help determine which option provides the desired outlook and salary expectations.

LMHC Salary

When comparing LCSW vs. LMHC salary estimates, remember that your location, years of experience, and chosen workplace can affect your salary expectations. According to Payscale, the average yearly salary for LMHCs is $61,000 as of February 2024.

LCSW Salary

Payscale shows that the average annual salary for an LCSW in the United States is $65,500 as of February 2024. This salary varies based on location and years of experience. For example, the average annual wage for an LCSW with up to one year of experience is about $51,000. For professionals with 10 or more years of experience, the pay is approximately $71,000.

LMHC Job Outlook

A career as an LMHC can be highly rewarding. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide data specifically for LMHC license holders, it does show that the number of mental health counselors in the United States is expected to grow by 18% between 2022 and 2032.

LCSW Job Outlook

The job outlook for LCSWs is healthy, even though it is not as strong as that of LMHCs. BLS data estimates that the number of social workers in the United States will increase by 7% between 2022 and 2032. This means that approximately 63,800 job openings will become available, although not all are specifically for LCSWs.

LCSW vs. LMHC Education & Curriculum

As you consider these fulfilling careers, it helps to explore the educational pathway needed to become an LCSW or LMHC. Some education steps are similar, such as both licenses requiring a master’s degree. At the same time, the required degree and curriculum vary between these two mental health professional licenses.

What Degree Do I Need To Become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker?

To qualify for the LCSW license, you must obtain a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program. A social work bachelor’s degree can help you prepare for your master’s degree in social work. However, you may be able to enroll in a master’s degree in social work if you have a bachelor’s degree in a related field. While not required, many LCSWs pursue a doctoral degree as a competitive step to further their education and enhance their career outlook.

LCSW Curriculum

The core curriculum of a master’s degree in social work, which prepares you to become a licensed LCSW, can include the following topics:

  • Case management
  • Crisis interventions
  • Serious illness care
  • Mental health counseling
  • Disability at work
  • Addiction and family

These are example core topics, but each master’s degree program can offer a tailored curriculum to focus on one or more aspects of clinical social work. In general, the curriculum offers a broader, societal focus on identifying sources of mental health challenges and their solutions.

What Degree Do I Need To Become a Licensed Mental Health Counselor?

You need a master’s degree, typically in counseling or a related field, to become an LMHC. A doctoral degree can strengthen your application and career outlook, although it isn’t required to become a licensed mental health counselor.

LMHC Curriculum

A master’s in counseling degree offers courses on individual mental health diagnosis and treatment. Whether you choose an in-person or online master’s in counseling, expect to learn about psychopathology, life stage development, and practical applications for personal and group therapy strategies. Some master’s programs also allow you to add a specialization in child psychology or other areas to further refine your career journey.

LMHC vs. LCSW Accreditation

Accreditation is a third-party validation process that highlights the quality of the institution and program of study. Accreditation options are available for LCSW and LMHC master’s degree programs.

LMHC Accreditation

Consider institutions that offer a counseling degree accredited by CACREP, the Council of Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. CACREP is one of the leading accrediting bodies for counseling degrees in the United States. This organization uses in-depth third-party reviews to ensure each institution is stable and provides the latest skills and knowledge needed.

LCSW Accreditation

One of the leading accrediting institutions for social work degrees is the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). This third-party accreditation process reviews the program outcomes, coursework, and institution to ensure the degree prepares the next generation of licensed clinical social workers with the latest research and best practices.

Licensure for LCSW and LMHC

The licensure process for both licenses depends on the state, so thoroughly review your local state law before moving forward. You typically need to prepare for and pass an exam after completing a master’s degree and performing a set number of supervised experience hours.

The examination for LCSW varies by state but is typically set by the Association of Social Work Board. For an LMHC license, you must pass either the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Exam or the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification.

Career Options for LMHC and LCSW

After completing a master’s in social work (MSW) online program without a GRE requirement or a master’s in counseling program, you have many career options. Although there is some career overlap, you will find key differences once you become certified as an LCSW or an LMHC.

LMHC Careers

There are many career pathways available in mental health for qualifying LMHCs. Here are a few careers you may be qualified for once you complete the licensure process:

  • Mental health therapist
  • Health consultants
  • Mental health clinician

LMHCs work in mental health clinics, private practices, government agencies, hospitals, schools, and related employment settings to provide therapy and crisis intervention where it’s needed most.

LCSW Careers

LCSWs also have diverse job opportunities in assisting individuals, families, and communities with mental health issues. Here are some potential careers related to this licensure:

  • Mental health social worker
  • Medical and public health social worker
  • School counselor
  • Substance abuse counselor
  • Clinical social worker
  • Child welfare social worker

Like LMHCs, these professionals work in settings ranging from clinical to community centers. Whether working in private practice, for government agencies, or with nonprofit organizations, licensed clinical social workers provide therapy and access to community resources.

Tips for Choosing Between an LCSW and LMHC

If you’re still not sure whether to become an LCSW or an LMHC, consider these tips:

  • Degree requirements: If you already have a master’s degree in social work or counseling, that credential will determine which counseling license is easier to obtain.
  • Your passions: Are you committed to providing holistic care to community members who need it most? Or do you want to work with individuals to overcome mental health or substance abuse challenges? Carefully compare the specializations of both licenses to find out which one suits your passions and goals.
  • Coursework available: Another way to compare the career paths is to look closely at the coursework from the relevant master’s degree programs. Reviewing the coursework of a master’s of social work and a master’s of counseling degree will give you a better idea of what you’ll study and how you’ll apply that knowledge in the field.

Keep in mind that your specific career pathway can take many turns. While choosing master’s degree programs and licensure options is important, you should also follow your passions. Regardless of your choice, both careers allow you to assist individuals with mental health issues and provide quality care in various settings.


If you wish to learn more about LCSW vs. LMHC salary expectations, career pathways, licensure requirements, or CSWE-accredited online MSW programs options, check out the following resources:

These are a few resources available to anyone interested in a career as an LCSW or an LMHC. Be sure to explore state-specific requirements and processes to learn more about salary expectations, job outlook, and career opportunities in your area.

Review Licensures for Your Career Journey

Take the first step in comparing LCSW vs. LMHC licensure today. When choosing your career path, consider your passions, career goals, and degree opportunities. Move forward confidently, knowing you’re using your skills, knowledge, and resources to make a difference in the lives of those around you.

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