The Average Clinical Therapist Salary: Why It’s So Hard to Pin Down

The Average Clinical Therapist Salary: Why It’s So Hard to Pin Down
If you're considering launching a career in mental health counseling, you need to be aware of how much different types of clinical therapists earn. Image from Unsplash
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Christa Terry March 17, 2020

There are a lot of different kinds of clinical therapists, from counseling psychologists to marriage and family therapists. Some earn a lot more than others; read on to find out why.

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Therapist is a catch-all term for all kinds of mental health counselors, which means that nailing down an accurate national average clinical therapist salary can be tough. Counseling psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and clinical social workers are all mental health professionals who treat clients with emotional and behavioral issues and even severe mental illnesses. They sometimes work in the same settings and may use some of the same techniques to help clients improve their mental and emotional health, social skills, and overall well-being. The biggest difference among them may be their earning potential.

If you’re considering launching a career in mental health counseling, you need to be aware of how much different types of clinical therapists earn. In this article about what the average clinical therapist salary looks like, we cover:

  • What does a clinical therapist do?
  • What is the average clinical therapist annual salary?
  • How much does a clinical social work therapist earn?
  • How much does a marriage and family therapist earn?
  • How much does a licensed counselor earn?
  • How much does a clinical counseling psychologist earn?
  • What is the earning potential for clinical therapists in private practice?
  • What is the difference between a therapist and a psychologist?
  • How does area of specialization affect salary?
  • How can I earn the highest clinical therapy salary?

What does a clinical therapist do?

Clinical therapists are licensed mental health professionals qualified to provide one-on-one psychotherapy to clients with serious mental health issues and less severe—but still challenging—personal issues. A clinical therapist might offer one client strategies to cope with job loss or divorce, participate in another’s substance abuse treatment, and meet with a third client multiple times each week as part of an intensive therapeutic program designed to treat borderline personality disorder.

Many lay people mistakenly assume that only clinical psychologists can diagnose and treat mental illness and provide one-on-one therapy. In fact, there are many kinds of licensed mental health professionals (e.g., licensed certified counselors and psychiatric nurse practitioners) who can legally treat everything from situational depression to conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.


“I Want to Be A Social Worker!”

There are a couple of significant practical considerations:

- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification

Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:

- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)

Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. (source)

A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. (source)

- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees

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What is the average clinical therapist annual salary?

PayScale reports that the average salary for a clinical therapist is about $49,461, but that number is misleading. Different types of clinical therapists can earn vastly different amounts, depending on their highest level of education and the setting in which they work.

For example, a clinical military psychologist working for the government might earn about $100,000. A licensed clinical social work therapist employed by a hospital could earn around $58,000, even if they’re treating the same types of patients as the psychologist. The staff mental health counselor at an inpatient psychiatric facility might might earn close to $50,500, while a marriage and family therapist with a master’s degree in counseling who opens a private practice can earn $100,000 or more in some areas of the country.

So, let’s break down clinical therapist salaries by field.

How much does a clinical social work therapist earn?

Social workers do more than merely find services and resources for disadvantaged and abused people. Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) can provide therapy in much the same way counseling psychologists do. LCSWs spend one to two years earning a master’s degree in social work counseling, then accrue another one to two years of supervised clinical experience. Only then can they can work as counselors or psychotherapists in settings like mental health facilities, hospitals, and private practices.

Unfortunately, even though social work therapists are experts in social work and psychology, many LCSWs don’t earn much more than $42,000, and most clinical social workers are lucky if they earn $60,000.

That said, 62 percent of LCSWs think their salaries are high enough. Social workers are legendarily altruistic; if you are not of like mind, this is probably not the career path for you.

How much does a marriage and family therapist earn?

Many marriage and family therapists (MFTs) offer couples counseling, but after earning a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, MFTs can also treat a variety of mental, emotional, and behavioral health issues. Some people feel more comfortable seeing a marriage and family therapist for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and addiction, and eating disorders.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most MFTs earn about $51,000. Those who work for government agencies can earn about $70,000.

How much does a licensed counselor earn?

There are a number of different designations for professional counselors (e.g., licensed professional counselor (LPC), licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), licensed mental health counselor (LMHC)) but these typically don’t have a major impact on median salary. Most mental health counselors earn between $59,574 and $73,035 after completing a counseling master’s program. Licensed counselors can earn quite a bit more (around $100,000 according to Indeed job listings) if they complete a PhD program after earning a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.

How much does a clinical counseling psychologist earn?

Clinicians who specialize in clinical or counseling psychology earn the most of all clinical therapists. They typically have a doctorate degree (a PhD or a PsyD), though some states allow psychologists to work one-on-one with clients with a master’s in psychology. They usually study longer and learn about more psychotherapeutic philosophies and techniques than do other types of therapists.

The average clinical psychologist salary is about $98,000. Clinical psychologists have the option of working in settings not usually open to other types of therapists. After completing their education and clinical practicum requirement, a counseling psychologist might become a sports psychologist, school psychologist, administrative hospital psychologist, or industrial-organizational psychologist.

What is the earning potential for clinical therapists in private practice?

This is where you can find some parity among clinical therapist salaries. A clinical psychologist with a private practice will earn about $123,500. Licensed mental health counselors can earn just as much.

That’s because clinical therapists who open their own practices can see as many clients as they can handle and set their own rates. In the right market, a clinical therapist, regardless of their educational background or legal title, may be able to charge clients many hundreds of dollars per hour.

What is the difference between a therapist and a psychologist?

What clinical psychologists do and what other therapists do isn’t all that different. Anyone who provides clinical counseling services can call themselves a therapist. Some therapists are psychologists, but other therapists are social workers, psychiatrists, and even pastors (who may or may not need degrees in counseling, depending on state rules).

All therapists diagnose and treat mental illness. That said, clinical psychologists are more likely to work in settings where people with chronic and severe conditions seek treatment, while mental health counselors are more likely to treat clients with comparatively minor conditions and those who are dealing with circumstance-specific issues. Licensed clinical social workers can do both but may devote more time to analyzing what’s happening in their clients’ lives.

How does area of specialization affect salary?

These disparities among mental health therapist salaries are based to some degree on education level (psychologists out-earn counselors). Still, education alone can’t explain why therapists with counseling psychology backgrounds earn so much more than their peers in other psychotherapeutic specialties who treat the same emotional and behavioral disorders, often using the same methods. What’s likely is that there are still long-held individual and institutional biases that favor some types of therapists (clinical psychologists, in particular) over others.

How can I earn the highest clinical therapy salary?

It is possible to earn more when you become a clinical therapist by:

  • Getting a psych degree: Chances are you’ll earn more with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a PhD than you will with a master’s degree in counseling.
  • Getting a doctorate: Mental health counselors with PhDs can earn as much as clinical psychologists.
  • Completing more internships: You’ll earn more right out of college with multiple internships under your belt.
  • Adding skills to your resume: Therapists with experience in data collection and data analysis, working with children, and working with people with autism tend to earn more.
  • Getting certified: Professional certifications that prove you’re an expert in cognitive behavioral therapy or applied behavior analysis can increase your earning potential.
  • Being bilingual: You will almost always earn more if you’re fluent in both Spanish and English.
  • Working in the city: Employers in major metro areas tend to pay the most.
  • Working for the government: A behavioral therapist working for a government agency could earn about $100,000—over $20,000 more than they’ll earn in a healthcare setting.

All that said, salary shouldn’t be your number one consideration when you’re choosing among clinical mental health counseling programs at the master’s degree and doctoral degree levels. Yes, you’ll probably earn more money if you become a clinical psychologist and open your own practice. Still, you may be happier and more fulfilled if you join the ranks of school counselors, family therapists, or counseling social workers—all of whom earn enough to get by in the US. Given how emotionally draining providing therapy can be, your own well-being may be more important in the long run than your lifetime earning potential.

(This article was updated on September 28, 2021.)

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