Counselor vs Therapist Differences & Similarities

There is some overlap between mental health counselors and therapists, but also some key differences in terms of job duties, education requirements, licensing, and salaries.

The most common occupations in these similar fields are licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT) and licensed professional counselors (LPC). Both professions work with people with mental health problems, but they often approach them in different ways. We will discuss these professions in this article.

What Is a Licensed Professional Counselor?

A licensed professional counselor provides mental health services to millions of Americans every year. LPCs have a master’s degree in most cases, but some may eventually earn their Ph.D. or PsyD in psychology. There are at least 120,000 LPCs currently working in the United States.

Licensed professional counselors are trained to work with individuals, families, and groups. They treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders and problems. LPCs comprise much of the workforce that works in mental health agencies, centers, and organizations.

An LPC’s training includes the understanding of the origins of mental illness and substance abused disorders. They also are well-versed in using cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, and psychodynamic therapy. Their education is centered on adopting a client-centered approach to treatment, rather than on the illness.

LPCs tend to focus more on mental health disorders outside of the family context, while marriage and family therapists’ work centers on mental health problems and how they affect relationships.

Education and Licensing

LPCs usually have a bachelor’s in psychology. They must have at least a master’s degree in counseling, including an internship or practicum with courses in human behavior and development, ethical practice, and effective counseling strategies.

LPCs must complete a minimum of 3,000 post-master’s clinical experience with a supervisor. They also must pass the National Counselor Examination or another state-recognized examination.

Licensed professional counselors may also be referred to as licensed mental health counselors.

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What Is a Marriage and Family Therapist?

A marriage and family therapist provides guidance to couples, groups, and families who are dealing with problems that affect their mental health. Some of the common issues that MFTs work on are:

  • Child behavior problems
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Domestic violence
  • Infertility
  • Martial problems
  • Substance abuse
  • Grieving losses of parents and other loved ones

Marriage and family therapists observe how people interact in a family unit and then try to resolve relationship issues. They also diagnose and treat mental health problems but within the family context.

MFTs also point out problematic relationships and behavior patterns and replace dysfunctional behaviors with healthy options.

Research shows that MFT therapy is as effective or more effective than standard individual counseling treatment for many mental health issues.

MFTs may work with people with mental health disorders as LPCs, but the mental health issue is handled as part of making the family unit work better.

Education and Licensing

MFTs usually have a bachelor’s degree in psychology or sociology. Next, they must have a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. In the MFT program, students learn about family therapy, abnormal psychology, assessment and treatment in a family context, developmental psychology, and foundations of psychotherapy.

Most states require an MFT to complete two years of post-graduate clinical work that is between 2,000 and 4,000 hours. Also, MFTs must pass a state-recognized exam that can vary by state.

Salary Differences

There are some differences between LPCs and MFTs in terms of their salary.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the median salary for MFTs is $49,600, with the top 10% earning more than $87,700 per year. reports the average salary for MFTs is $56,100, with a range between $40,000 and $79,000. As noted below, the top end of salaries for MFTs is higher than for LPCs.

Below are some reported salaries for MFTs:

  • Kaiser Permanente: $72,000
  • Columbia Valley Community Health: $58,000
  • Didi Hirsch: $59,000

LPC reports that LPCs earn an average salary of $48,278, with a range between $36,000 and $65,000. While the typical salary between MFTs and LPCs are similar, MFTs can earn more money over the years.

Below are some reported salaries for LPCs:

  • Rogers Memorial Hospital: $47,000
  • Correct Care Solutions: $51,000
  • Behavioral Health Group: $50,000
  • Catholic Charities: $36,000
  • Universal Health Services: $58,000

What The Experts Say

To learn what the experts have to say about the differences and similarities between counselors and therapists, we checked some trusted sources:

  • “Counselor” is a much more generic term than “therapist.” I’ve seen the title “counselor” applied very loosely to all sorts of jobs that come with very little requisite education or training. I’ve heard Jenny Craig weight loss consultants called “counselors.” People with very little education/experience can call themselves “drug and alcohol counselors.” – Ann Clark, Masters Counseling, Sonoma State University.
  • “Most often, for traditional therapy, you might see a licensed professional counselor, trained to support typically functioning people as they negotiate life challenges….A marriage and family therapist looks at the client and the role and function the client fulfills in the family system.” – Jessica Brown, Mental Health Counselor.
  • “The two terms are used loosely and often interchangeably. Counselors are more likely to have training dealing with more mundane problems of daily life. Therapists are more likely to be trained to dive deep and do more heavy lifting.” – Ralph Pifer, Retired Professor, Clinical Psychology, Western Michigan University.
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The careers of licensed professional counselors and marriage and family therapists are similar, and there is some overlap. Both treat mental health problems, but the LPC often treats the individual’s mental health issue outside of the family context, while most of the MFT’s work concerns mental health and personality issues that affect the family unit.

Both professions allow you to help others to improve their lives. It is smart to check the individual master’s program you are considering to see whether it follows more of the counseling, vs. therapy model.