What is the Difference Between a Counselor and a Social Worker?

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  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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The terms counselor and social worker are a bit challenging since each has multiple definitions. Some people who are social workers receive that name by nature of the jobs they hold, but they may not have training that licenses them by the state to give counseling. Especially in state agencies, a few social workers don’t hold advanced licenses or degrees, but have been trained to perform certain tasks that an agency requires. Similarly, many people may use the title counselor, and this includes a number who don’t have degrees in psychology or licensing with specific agencies. There are many different kinds of counselors, including religious, academic and job counselors, and they may be able to assist people under limited circumstances, depending upon their experience and training.

Things get very different if people are looking for licensed therapist. In this case, a licensed therapist might be called a specialized social worker, called a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), or a licensed therapist such as a marriage and family therapist (MFT) or marriage family and child counselor (MFCC). Other professions may also come under the heading of counselor. Psychologists and psychiatrists are both trained and equipped to be counselors too, and they are licensed to do so.


Essentially this means that a licensed clinical social worker is equipped to be a counselor. They have master’s degrees in social work, and they’ve completed extra training beyond that degree in order to obtain licensure. Not all LCSWs choose to be therapists, but any LCSW can be. The matter may get confusing because most licensed counselors (MFTs and MFCCs) may not be able to call themselves social workers, unless they work at job where that title is automatically given. However, if an MFCC or MFT is not a licensed social worker, certain professions are not open to that person.

Some people ask this question because they’re interested in finding the best therapist. Will a counselor (MFT or MFCC) be more skilled than a licensed social worker? This is a very individual question. Some in the mental health profession suggest that for the best care, people should look for professionals with any of these titles who have fairly significant experience. MFTs and LCSWs that have been in practice for a number of years will clearly have had more opportunities working with a diverse population.

Something some mental health professionals suggest people avoid is “counselors” who do not have the training or licensure that would help them in complex situations. Still many people do find help by working with a spiritual or job counselor for specific needs. Hopefully that counselor is gifted enough to realize when a client requires greater support and the skill of a licensed professional instead.

The last issue that can create some misunderstanding when people search for a counselor is that some people hold several licenses. There are people who are both LCSWs and MFTs, for instance. Also some people associated with churches or who work as education counselors have licensure as MFTs, or in social work, or are even licensed psychologists. As people search for an adequate counselor, they should look for licensing, adequate experience and also interview a few folks to find someone with whom they feel comfortable. In the end, the specific degree may matter less than actual license, competency, and comfort level in discussing difficult matters.


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Post 9

People cannot be social workers by the nature of their job. A therapist may be called a therapist by the nature of their jobs. But you need at least a bachelor's degree to be called a social worker. Anyone stating that they are a social worker can be in trouble with the state if they do not have a degree in social work. It is a credential that cannot be loosely given, such as the title of therapist.

Some people who are social workers receive that name by nature of the jobs they hold, but they may not have training that licenses them by the state to give counseling

Post 8

I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Virginia. As such, I am able to assess, diagnose and treat individuals. Virginia views Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Clinical Psychologists, LMFTs and LPCs as being on the same level, although there is much debate about it. LMFTs and LPCs tend to have much more variation in their training (e.g., human services, counseling, special education, sociology) whereas LCSWs are trained in clinical social work and are bound by a national code of ethics.

Post 7

Actually in the state of Texas, LCSWs are higher than LPCs, so I guess it depends on the state if they are equal. It's like a stair step: LMSW, then LPC, then LCSW.

Post 6

You said it, anon122694. Social workers, with some exceptions (but I have not encountered any) have a completely different approach that, both professionally, and personally, I have found to be detrimental to matters of the mind and spirit.

The dearth of psychologists, and under-utilization of these significantly more qualified individuals, does not bode well at all. Yes, a social worker is far cheaper. The expense of a psychologist puts seeing one out of the reach of most.

Seeing a "happy family" social worker may be less expensive, but the toll on the individual can be so severe as to make frog-hunting a better alternative for the health of the psyche.

In a medical setting, social workers are being and have been, introduced as therapists. Presumably, this fits into the less-threatening "happy family" modality. Insurance will cover this, but again, frog-hunting might be better therapy.

Post 5

It is sad that sometimes professional people do not know that an LPC is equal to a LCSW or can be more useful, even. Why not make job opportunities equal at least?

Post 4

You failed to mention that your counselor's training is essential to the treatment of your presenting problem. Only individuals with clinical training (e.g., Masters, PhD, or PsyD in Clinical Psychology) have been formally trained to diagnose and treat DSM mental health disorders. Social workers typically provide brief/temporary counseling and coordinate services, but are not qualified (due to not having the training) in providing long-term therapy.

Post 3

You have left out the license of LPC, Licensed Professional Counselor. There are far more LPCs than there are MFT.

Post 2

What type of degree does one need to be an academic/job counselor?

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