What are the Key Differences Between an LPC and LMFT? [2023 Guide]

LPCs, or licensed professional counselors, and LMFTs, or licensed marriage and family therapists, are cut from the same cloth. They have similar educations, and in broad strokes, both LPCs and LMFTs seek to help their clients with life’s difficulties, such as mental health issues.

However, these helping professions also have many differences that make them distinct from one another. In particular, their clientele, the focus of their practice, and the specialized training they receive are different.

These and other details about how LPCs and LMFTs differ are discussed in this guide.

LPC Vs LMFT

LPCs typically work with individuals across various mental health issues, helping them manage personal challenges or mental health disorders. Whereas LMFTs are specialized in addressing problems related to family dynamics and relationships, utilizing therapeutic approaches to improve communication and resolve conflicts.

These professions have many similarities. But their differences are much more important for recognizing their unique applications and benefits in your life. Below are some of the essential differences between these careers.

Differences in Working

The most significant difference between an LPC and LMFT is the scope of their practice. LPCs work with individuals and groups of clients of all ages, backgrounds, and mental health needs. LMFTs, meanwhile, focus their practice more specifically on issues related to couples, families, and relationships.

For example, an LPC is much more likely to meet with individual clients. Likewise, LPCs often work with groups of clients that share a common concern, like group therapy for people with an addiction or a mood disorder.

Conversely, LMFTs work almost exclusively with couples and families. LMFTs often meet with the individual members of a couple or family, but those individual sessions occur in tandem with couples and family sessions.

So, how do these differences play out?

Let’s assume you recently got divorced and are experiencing anxiety related to the end of your relationship. An LPC might help you process your feelings through talk therapy to reduce your anxiety. They might also work with a medical doctor who can prescribe you an anti-anxiety medication as a supplementary vehicle for helping you manage your anxiety.

Now, let’s assume you are married with two children and experiencing relationship difficulties with your significant other. In this case, an LMFT might be more appropriate because their focus is on the family system. So, suppose the problems in your relationship stem from a lack of communication between you and your significant other. In that case, an LMFT might work with you individually, as a couple, and as a family to teach you more effective communication methods.

Though the goals of an LPC and LMFT are the same – to help their clients cope with life’s difficulties – the ways in which they do it are very different.

Another difference between LPCs and LMFTs is their scope of focus on the causes of mental health issues. For example, an LPC is often solution-focused, meaning, their goal is to identify the current problem and what they can do to help their client overcome that problem right now.

So, if a client shows symptoms of depression, an LPC will explore the general context of the client’s life, explore the reasons the client feels the way they do, and work with the client to address those feelings in a healthy manner. Typically, the process has an educational component, such as teaching the client coping mechanisms for dealing with their feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and so forth.

Treatment from an LMFT is also often focused on solutions to current problems. However, LMFTs are more concerned with relational and social factors contributing to mental health issues. This isn’t to say that LPCs dismiss these factors; LMFTs simply focus on them more.

So, if one member of a family is depressed, an LMFT would have much the same approach as an LPC as described above. However, an LMFT would also want to know how the person’s family relationships play into their mental health, as well as social forces that might have contributed to the depression or, conversely, could help the client work through their depression.

The scope of practice and the clientele aren’t the only differences between these professions. There are also significant differences in the work environments and education of LPCs and LMFTs.

Differences in Work Environment

LPCs and LMFTs both work in clinically-focused environments – mental health centers, community mental health, and private practice, to name a few. Some LPCs and LMFTs work in related settings as well, such as residential treatment centers, hospitals, and state agencies, like the Department of Human Services or the Department of Family Services.

But, one of the distinctions between these professions is the scope of potential work environments. Since LMFTs work exclusively with couples and families, their work tends to be more restricted to the locations listed above.

For example, many LMFTs work in private practice. This work environment is more conducive to their specialist work than, say, a hospital, where they might be called upon to provide more generalist mental health care to patients.

LPCs, though, typically have a much broader range of work environments because the focus of their work is so much more comprehensive. For example, an LPC might specialize in working with adolescents or older adults. They might work in the typical clinical environments listed earlier, or they might specialize in working in managed care organizations, hospice settings, or even with the military.

For example, an LPC might work exclusively with children under the age of five. As a result, they might work in a preschool setting, for a public school district, or have a private practice that specializes in young child mental health care.

It should be noted that these trends are what’s common – nothing is set in stone. Some LMFTs work in a wide range of environments, just like LPCs do. And some LPCs have a much more focused clientele than LMFTs do.

Differences in Education

Generally speaking, LPCs and LMFTs follow a similar educational path. Both professions require at least a master’s degree in addition to state licensure to practice. But the type of graduate education and professional license are primary differences between these careers.

LPCs typically have to complete a master’s degree in mental health counseling with 60 or more graduate credits to qualify for licensure. Of those credits, it’s common for states to require 48 or more credits to be part of a graduate program in mental health counseling. In some cases, LPCs might be eligible for licensure with a graduate degree in a field other than counseling, like clinical psychology, counseling psychology, or perhaps even social work. It’s far more common for LPCs to have a graduate degree in:

  • Mental health counseling
  • Clinical mental health counseling
  • Rehabilitation counseling
  • Counseling and career development
  • Counseling and human development

Many states require prospective licensees to graduate from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), which is an independent accreditation body for counseling and counseling-related programs.

Additionally, states require counseling licensees to complete anywhere from 2,000-3,000 hours of supervised fieldwork that occurs after the completion of the graduate program and prior to obtaining a full license.

Like LPCs, LMFTs also need a graduate degree or higher to qualify for licensure in most states. Typically, this includes a two-three-year master’s program in marriage and family counseling accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) or a CACREP-accredited Marriage, Couples, and Family Therapy program.

Alternatively, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy notes that a postgraduate clinical training program is a viable alternative for licensure. Most postgraduate clinical programs require three to four years of work. A three to five-year doctoral program in marriage and family therapy is also suitable for licensure.

Whatever educational path is taken, becoming a licensed MFT requires participate in supervised clinical work before licensure. This is typically a two-year placement, upon completion of which you take state licensing exams or the national examination provided by the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards (AMFTRB).

Which is Better? An LPC or LMFT?

As noted earlier, LPCs tend to work with a broader range of clients, while LMFTs are specialists in couples and family relationships. From this perspective, an LPC might be a better choice if you have general mental health care needs, and an LMFT is more appropriate if your struggles are related to your relationships.

But what if your struggle is in identifying which of these professions is the best fit for your interests and skills? In that context, you will need to do some introspection and clarify your career goals. Does the prospect of working with individual clients in a therapeutic setting excite you? Or are you intrigued by facilitating improved mental health for couples and families?

Though the educational experiences are different for these careers, the general timeframe and the basic requirements for licensure are quite similar.

So, deciding between these careers mostly comes down to the clientele with whom you wish to work, the potential environments in which you work, and, of course, your skills and abilities as a counselor. Some people are much better suited for the generalist work of LPCs, while others have a gift for working with couples and families.

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