Differences Between a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Psychologist

Terms like “counselor”, “psychologist”, and “therapist” are often used to describe the same professionals, yet these terms also often describe people with very different educational backgrounds and qualifications.

Add in more titles like “licensed professional counselor”, “licensed mental health counselor”, “Board Certified Behavioral Analyst”, and others, and all the terminology can get downright confusing.

This guide explores the differences between two common titles in the helping professions – licensed professional counselor and psychologist.

LPC Vs. Psychologist

A Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) provides therapy to clients, helping them cope with emotional, mental, and behavioral issues. A psychologist, however, besides providing therapy, often conducts research and psychological testing to understand human behavior better. Both have advanced degrees but different licensure requirements.

On the surface, LPCs and psychologists are extremely similar careers that focus on providing mental health services to clients in need. But, if we dig a little deeper, a long list of differences between these occupations begins to reveal itself. Some of the most important differences are outlined below.

Differences in Working of an LPC and a Psychologist

Two primary differences between LPCs and psychologists are their work environments and education. Those are discussed in detail a little later. Other job-related differences that make these careers distinct are explored below.

A good example of this is the type of work LPCs and psychologists do in the workplace. Psychologists are often trained to conduct assessments with clients – personality tests, IQ tests, and tests of neurological functioning. This is a function of the training psychologists receive in school, which often focuses on testing and assessment in addition to therapeutic interventions.

In some cases, LPCs might also conduct tests with clients, but this is rare. Instead, most LPCs focus on talk therapy and other modalities to help clients address their current mental health concerns.

In this regard, LPCs might be considered more present-focused, such as identifying what can be done now to address the client’s problem. Meanwhile, psychologists might spend more time digging into their client’s past to help devise an appropriate treatment plan to address current concerns.

Another example of the differences between these professions is that in some states, psychologists can prescribe medication to their clients, like an antidepressant for a client that’s in a major depressive episode. Psychologists can only do this in certain situations, and they must do so with the supervision of a medical doctor.

Nevertheless, the option is on the table for psychologists, whereas LPCs cannot prescribe medication in any circumstances. To do so requires consultation with a psychologist or medical doctor, who would then prescribe the appropriate medication and dosage.

LPCs and psychologists also tend to differ regarding the breadth of services they provide. As an example, psychologists are often more focused on the mental health issue presently causing the client distress. This is the case because psychologists’ clients are usually dealing with significant mental health issues.

LPCs tend to be more holistic in their focus, working with the client on the presenting issue that brought them to treatment and the other aspects of the client’s life. So, let’s say a client is depressed. As an LPC, you might help the client work through their depression by evaluating the influence of their relationships, career, or other life situations on their mood. Doing so helps identify potential causes of the client’s depressed mood while also helping inform you about the best ways to treat the client’s current complaints.

Differences in Work Environment

Many, if not most, LPCs and psychologists work in a therapeutic environment, like a mental health clinic or private practice. As discussed above, both also spend a lot of time engaging with clients in individual, couples, family, or group therapy.

However, there are also significant differences in the types of work environments available to LPCs and psychologists. For example, LPCs usually don’t work with severely mentally ill patients that have to be committed to an institution. Instead, this would be the purview of a psychologist because their training focuses more on the etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of severe mental disorders.

As a result, private and state-funded mental institutions typically employ psychologists rather than LPCs. By contrast, community mental health centers and outpatient mental health programs usually have a higher number of LPCs because their training focus is on working with people who have everyday problems and less severe mental health issues, like eating disorders, mood disorders, and personality disorders.

There are differences in other aspects of the work environments for these careers, too. A good example of this is industrial-organizational psychology. With the proper training, a psychologist can apply their knowledge to improve how businesses and organizations work. A similar educational and licensure path is not currently available for LPCs.

We can take this a step further with another example: LPC credentials from the American Counseling Association focus exclusively on counseling – mental health counseling, clinical mental health counseling, professional clinical counseling, and so on. Credentials from other organizations follow in the same vein, like addiction counseling, rehabilitation counseling, and school counseling.

Psychologists, on the other hand, apart from state licensure, can be certified from the American Board of Professional Psychology to work in a vast array of areas, including:

  • Forensic psychology
  • Neuropsychology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Clinical health
  • Psychoanalysis

So, not only are the work environments different for these careers, but the specialties available to each of these professions have some differences as well.

Differences in Education

The educational requirements for these careers are yet another way to distinguish between a licensed professional counselor and a psychologist. The primary difference is that LPCs need a master’s degree or higher, while psychologists need a doctorate.

Beyond that, the specific requirements for these careers regarding education, training, and experience vary from one state to the next because licensure is handled at the state level. That being the case, what qualifies you to be an LPC or psychologist in one state might not in another.

What’s certain is that LPCs and psychologists must fulfill different criteria to obtain licensure. For example, LPCs in most states have to complete at least 60 credits of graduate work, of which 48 or more must lead to a graduate degree. Though counseling is perhaps the most common type of graduate degree for this field, you might be eligible for an LCP license with a closely related degree, like psychology or social work.

Moreover, states require anywhere from 2,000-3,000 hours of supervised practice upon graduation before a full license will be conferred. In the interim, you might be eligible for an initial license as you complete the requirements of full licensure.

In contrast, psychologists must complete a doctoral degree in psychology. Some states have a further requirement that the doctoral program be accredited by the American Psychological Association. Psychologists must also sit for licensure exams (which might also be a requirement for LPCs). It’s typical to need 4,000 hours of supervised practice, too.

So, while LPCs and psychologists need advanced education and training, the type of degree and the extent of training and supervised experience is quite different.

Can an LPC Diagnose Mental Illness?

According to the American Counseling Association, LPCs are trained to diagnose mental illnesses. To do so, they rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision, or DSM-5 TR.

But diagnosing mental illnesses is just part of the equation. LPCs also explore the origins of mental illness, devise treatments and interventions, and evaluate the effectiveness of treatments in addressing the concerns of their clients.

As noted earlier, LPCs don’t usually work with clients that have severe mental illnesses like schizophrenic disorders or dissociative disorders. Instead, they usually diagnose and treat people with common mental health concerns like anxiety and depression.

Not all clients are mentally ill, either. For example, an LPC might work with a client that wants to have more confidence in social situations or a client that wants to improve their ability to communicate with their significant other.

Which is Better? An LPC or a Psychologist?

Judging whether an LPC or a psychologist is best depends on what you need and your particular situation.

Let’s say you are a college student planning your future, and you want to work with people to help them solve everyday problems and overcome the occasional bout of mental illness. Becoming an LPC would allow you to do that.

But, if you have aspirations of conducting research in clinical health, cognition, or human development, becoming a psychologist is a better option. Likewise, if you are interested in working with severely mentally ill patients in a residential setting, getting an education as a psychologist is the better option.

There’s another part to this equation, though – LPCs and psychologists offer different skill sets for helping you with mental illness. So, instead of supposing you are a college student preparing for your future career, let’s assume you are a college student who feels depressed after a romantic relationship ends. An LPC might be a better fit for helping you address your feelings and get back to normal.

But, if you’re experiencing significant mental health issues, a psychologist might be a better choice. The higher level of education and the more extensive training of psychologists is often better suited for working with clients with severe mental illnesses.

Ultimately, though, if you are in need of mental health care, an LPC or psychologist can do an equally fine job of intake and diagnosis. Then, if your specific needs are outside the scope of their abilities, they can refer you to someone that’s better equipped to help you address your particular situation.

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