What are the Differences Between an LPC and LCSW?

A licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) perform many of the same tasks. These professionals meet with clients in a therapeutic setting, diagnose and treat mental disorders, and seek to equip their clients with the knowledge and skills they need to lead better lives.

But despite these similarities, there are also many differences between LPCs and LCSWs. Namely, LPCs and LCSWs differ in the focus and scope of their work, the environments in which they work, and the education they require.

Let’s explore these differences in detail so you can get a clearer picture of how these popular mental health professions are unique!

What are the Differences Between and an LPC and LCSW?


An LPC focuses on mental health issues, providing therapy and counseling. An LCSW also offers therapy but emphasizes social factors affecting mental health, including environmental influences and support systems. LPCs focus much more on mental health services, whereas LCSWs have a more holistic approach, of which mental health services may be a part.

For example, let’s assume you have a drug or alcohol addiction and are seeking help from a mental health professional to get your life back on track. An LPC would be a good asset for therapeutic treatments such as counseling, which can help you understand the origin of your addiction, the triggers that contribute to your drug or alcohol abuse, and develop the refusal skills necessary for reducing your intake of drugs or alcohol.

Likewise, an LPC would use specific treatments to address your addiction. They might utilize dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which strives to help you change your behavior and accept that emotional pain might be part of the effort to change.

LPCs might also use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which targets thought patterns that lead to maladaptive behavior. By recognizing the thought patterns that result in negative behavior and changing those thoughts, you can break the cycle of addiction and move forward toward healthy living once again.

The focus of an LCSW is a little different. While counseling is likely to be part of the services they offer, LCSWs also provide resources to address other areas of concern in their clients’ lives. Using our example from above, as someone with an alcohol or drug addiction, an LCSW can help you identify and seek out community resources that will help you address the related effects of your addiction.

For example, an LCSW can provide counseling services for you and your family, connect you with a local Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous chapter, and help you find stable housing if you don’t currently have a permanent place to live. Likewise, an LCSW can work with you to help resolve family strife, provide resources for finding a job, and identify local government resources you can use to pay for food, rent, and other necessities.

Differences in Job Duties

We can frame this difference in focus in another way – the scope of an LPC’s or LCSW’s work. Where LPCs are mostly concerned with the individual psychological experience of their clients, LCSWs are also concerned with how the individual’s experience ties in with the family and community experience as well.

This doesn’t mean LPCs aren’t concerned about their client’s greater well-being – far from it. In fact, many LPCs offer couples and family counseling and lead group counseling experiences for people with the same mental health diagnoses (e.g., leading a weekly support group for people with eating disorders).

However, as discussed in the example above, LCSWs are responsible for treating the whole person. While LPCs specialize in treating mental health problems, LCSWs specialize in counseling, resource development, advocacy, and public health policy development.

Let’s explore a second example to highlight these differences again. Assume you’re an LPC and have a client with an anxiety disorder. The scope of your work with this client might include conducting an intake to determine the breadth and depth of the client’s symptoms, administering psychological assessments to aid in the diagnosis process, and devising a scope of treatment to address their specific anxiety disorder. In this case, CBT would be the most likely form of treatment.

Then, you would engage in individual CBT sessions with the client to address their disorder. CBT is usually a short-form treatment – as few as a handful of sessions and seldom longer than about twenty sessions, each around an hour long. At the conclusion of CBT, you would have the knowledge and skills required to manage your anxiety, which, in turn, would allow you to live life in a much more functional manner.

As an LCSW, though, your interactions with an anxious client are likely to be different. For example, rather than conducting individual psychological assessments on the client, you might make a home visit to see how you interact with your significant other, children, or other family members living in your household. In other words, you would be interested in examining not just the client’s individual behavior but how their home environment affects their behavior.

Additionally, as explored in the earlier example, as an LCSW, you would provide your client with resources that help them address the problems their anxiety causes in other aspects of their lives. It’s reasonable to assume that someone with an anxiety disorder might have difficulties at work, in romantic relationships, and in platonic relationships. They might struggle to be social, have trepidation traveling, or lack the skills needed to advocate for themselves.

To address these issues, you might provide psychoeducational training, refer the client to a specialist on anxiety, or work with an LPC or another mental health professional to get your client the counseling services they require. You would also likely provide case management services and coordinate between the various resources you provide to your client.

Differences in Work Environment

LPCs work in a wide range of environments, from non-profit mental health centers to hospitals to private practice. It’s common for LPCs to work in schools, residential care facilities, and specialized care facilities, like those that treat addictions or eating disorders.

In each instance, they provide their services in an office setting, frequently in a one-on-one context with the client, though couples, family, and group counseling may also occur.

LCSWs work in office environments as well, but they are much more likely to work for public sector organizations than LPCs. For example, where many LPCs work in non-profit mental health clinics, many LCSWs work for government agencies like the Department of Family Services. LCSWs also often work for social welfare agencies and state education systems.

This difference in the work environment speaks to the differences discussed earlier regarding the focus and scope of work. It makes sense that LPCs, who focus on the individual psychological well-being of their clients, work in settings where they can provide service in a one-on-one setting. Meanwhile, it also makes sense for LCSWs, who provide a much more holistic set of services, to work for government organizations where they have access to a broad scope of resources for their clients.

Differences in Education

LPCs and LCSWs are similar in that they are both required to have a master’s degree and must meet strict state-mandated requirements for licensure. However, the specific type of degree and licensure requirements vary.

For example, LPCs need a master’s degree in counseling that includes an internship component. These programs are often around 60 credits, and include coursework in counseling theories, techniques, and ethics, to name a few. Internship requirements may vary from one program to the next. However, at least 600 hours of supervised professional experience is required to graduate, though up to 1,000 hours is not uncommon. These programs usually require three years to complete.

Upon successfully finishing a graduate program in counseling, you must then complete the requirements for licensure. Since licensure is controlled at the state level, the specific requirements you need to meet might vary from one state to the next. That said, you can expect a supervised practice requirement of several thousand hours to be a central component of the licensure process. You will also need to pass a professional licensure exam, such as the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification.

To become an LCSW, you will need to first complete a master’s degree in social work (MSW). An MSW is often a three-year program that requires around 60 credits to graduate. Like the counseling program described earlier, an MSW program includes an internship requirement that gives you face-to-face experience working with clients in a real-world setting. Internships can be anywhere from 900-1,200 hours, depending on the program. You will also complete coursework on a range of topics from human behavior to social work practice methods to social work policy.

Then, once you graduate with an MSW, you’ll need to meet the state requirements for licensure. This often includes a supervised practice component of around 3,000 hours and a passing score on a professional examination like the Association of Social Work Boards exam.

Can an LPC Diagnose Mental Illness?

LPCs can diagnose mental illnesses. Diagnosis is a key component of training in a graduate counseling program. LPCs use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-V-TR) to aid in the diagnostic process.

Can an LPC Provide Family Counseling?

LPCs most frequently work with individual clients. However, they are also trained to provide couples, family, and group counseling. It is typical, however, for families to seek the services of a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) rather than see an LPC. In fact, LPCs are likely to refer family clients to an LMFT.

Is Being an LCSW Stressful?

Any mental health profession can be stressful, and working as a licensed clinical social worker is no exception. On the one hand, LCSWs are privy to people’s worst experiences, from the death of a loved one to financial instability to losing custody of one’s kids. These experiences are extraordinarily stressful for clients; helping clients through these experiences can be emotionally taxing for LCSWs, too.

On the other hand, working as an LCSW can be stressful because of the never-ending work. As noted earlier, many LCSWs work for government agencies, and these agencies often have a backlog of cases. With more cases come more clients, and with more clients come more responsibilities for LCSWs. It’s critically important that LCSWs maintain a healthy work-life balance to avoid burnout.

Having said that, working as an LCSW can also be extremely rewarding. As an LCSW, you have the skills to make a significant, positive impact on your clients’ lives that enables them to be happier and healthier. The positive results that come from this line of work can make all the stress worth it!

Which is Better? An LPC or LCSW?

As is often the case with mental health professions, the one that’s better depends largely on the needs of the client. If someone is struggling with a mental health issue and they want to learn how to manage it more effectively, an LPC is likely the better choice. If, though, someone’s mental health issues are causing significant disruptions in family relationships and occupational pursuits, an LCSW might be the more appropriate choice given their broader scope of work.

But which is better from a professional standpoint? Well, the answer is the same – it depends. If you are struggling to decide if you want to be an LPC or LCSW, your choice will need to come down to your professional goals. If you envision yourself specializing in counseling theories and techniques, working in a private practice setting, and providing services to individual clients, becoming an LPC is the better option.

However, if you are drawn to counseling in a broader context of a client’s home, work, and social environments, and you want to facilitate change in their life through counseling, providing external resources, and advocacy, becoming an LCSW is your better bet.

In either case, you will need to complete similar education and licensure requirements that take about the same amount of time. And once you are done with your training, you will be well-equipped to be a difference-maker for people who need expert guidance. In both cases, a highly satisfying (though often stressful) job awaits!

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