therapist talking with couple

The Difference Between a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and a Marriage and Family Therapist

If you are interested in working in the field of mental health, you have a lot of potential career options: psychologist, therapist, counselor. To the untrained eye, these titles probably sound like different names for the same career – and to an extent, all of these mental health professions share a common thread: they assess, diagnose and treat patients for a variety of mental health issues. Dig a little deeper however, and the differences start to emerge.

To many students considering an advanced degree in the field of mental health, deciding between similar-sounding professions is a difficult choice. The program you choose will determine your career path for years to come, so it’s not something to choose lightly. If you are in this position, a good starting point is first deciding what level of degree you are interested in pursuing. In order to work as a psychologist, for example, you will need to earn a doctorate degree – so if a doctorate program is too much commitment for you right now, you’ll want to rule that out. Thankfully, you still have several viable career options at the Master’s level: Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).

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LPCC vs MFT: What’s the Difference?

In order to choose between the two professions, however, you will first need to understand the differences between the two programs. In the state of California especially there is some confusion on the difference between a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist – especially as LPCCs are fairly new to the state. The law passing LPCCs into existence didn’t come about until 2009 – making California the last state in the nation to adopt this profession, and therefore making LPCCs a comparatively unexplored career path in the state’s history of mental health treatment.

At first glance, the pathways to licensure for both careers look very similar. In order to qualify for licensure for either career in California, you must have earned a 60-unit Master’s degree from a program that integrates the principles of mental health recovery-oriented practice and features training in multicultural values, human growth and development, psychopharmacology and substance abuse counseling. Both career paths also require a supervised practicum of 6 units and 3,000 hours of supervised clinical experience.

Although both professions have similar training and focus on similar functions, the underlying philosophies – and how they approach a situation – are vastly different. Let’s take a look.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs)

Within the world of mental health, LMFTs are generally considered a specialty field and operate within a narrower scope of practice. Whereas LPCCs operate more generally within the field of mental health, MFTs tend to focus solely on couples and families. When treating clients, LMFTs look at behavior from a social and relational context, focusing on the client’s microsystems: settings and groups that directly impact a client’s well-being, such as family, school or the workplace. They operate under the assumption that no person lives in a social vacuum, and that as such, our relationships with those around us have a profound impact on our behavior and mental well-being. When treating a client, Marriage and Family Therapists look to identify problems that arise from relationships.

Licensed Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCC)

LPCCs have a wider scope of practice and operate more generally in the field of mental health. When treating clients, they approach problems from an individual development standpoint, examining a patient’s psychological and social development. So whereas MFTs look to identify problems from a relationship standpoint, LPCCs look to identify problems within the individual. And whereas MFTs tend to focus on problems from a microsystem standpoint, LPCCs look more broadly, focusing on a client’s overall ecological systems, which, in addition to the microsystem, takes into account aspects such as cultural context, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, to name just a few.

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Clinical Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy Master’s Programs

Neither profession is better than the other. Choosing between them is simply a matter or preference. Would you prefer to work within a broader section of the mental health field, treating a variety of mental health issues and focusing on you client’s personal growth and development? If so, the pathway to becoming a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor might be right for you. Or would you rather narrow your studies to focus specifically on relationship dynamics between couples and families, providing the necessary support to help clients improve problems in their relationships? If so, a career as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist might be a better pathway for you.

Whichever pathway you prefer, Alliant can help you achieve your goals! Our California School of Professional Psychology offers two graduate degree programs that can set you on the right path to earning licensure in either profession:

If you are interested in learning more about our Clinical Counseling or MFT program – or continuing to explore the differences between the two professions – we encourage you to contact us today!


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