How to Become a Trauma Psychologist [2024 Updated Guide]

Last Updated: June 1, 2024

What is Trauma?

Trauma is any type of severely stressful event that occurs to someone or that is witnessed by someone that impairs their functioning or well-being. It is a life-threatening event or an experience that is harmful to the safety of one’s self or others around them.

For instance, of course, child abuse or neglect could be classified as trauma. A severe car accident could be a traumatic experience. A natural disaster could be traumatic, as well.

What is Trauma Psychology?

The field of trauma psychology examines people, who have experienced a trauma, in an effort to find ways to help them better cope with what happened to them, or what they witnessed.

A goal of trauma psychology is to help individuals heal from their traumas, so that they can move forward with their lives. Trauma psychology also examines the link between traumas and substance abuse, alcoholism, and addictions. It also explores how traumas affect an individual’s ability to retain jobs, and maintain healthy relationships and friendships.

The field of trauma psychology also involves assessing patients, suffering from life-altering events like: the death of a loved one, paralysis, serious injuries, a history of abuse, neglect, crime, and war experiences.

This form of psychology is associated with trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy. One of the most common issues addressed in the trauma psychology field is post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

It is common for individuals, who have experienced a severely traumatic event to suffer from chronic after-effects. In other words, these individuals constantly relive the traumatic experience to the point that it interferes with their daily functioning.

For individuals, suffering from PTSD, the line between reality and past memories becomes intertwined, so that they are unable to distinguish between the present and the past. The goal of trauma psychology is to develop treatments that will help people, suffering from traumas, acquire the happy lives they deserve.

What is a Trauma Psychologist?

A trauma psychologist is someone who works with people who have experienced a trauma in an effort to help them to overcome that experience and to live a happier and healthier life in a way that helps them to move on from that experience.

Most people, who have experienced a trauma, require professional assistance from a qualified mental health professional. A trauma psychologist helps these individuals move past the horror of the event, by teaching them more effective coping skills.

What Does a Trauma Psychologist Do?

Job duties of a trauma psychologist typically include conducting one-on-one therapy, group therapy, family therapy, or various types of support groups.

Many trauma psychologists undertake educational experiences and training to specialize in working with a particular group of people.

For example, a trauma psychologist might only work with female victims of domestic violence or child victims of sexual abuse. Of course, trauma psychologists can also work in a more general sense, helping clients that have suffered trauma for any number of reasons, such as the death of a loved one or an unexpected event, such as a natural disaster.

In many cases, trauma psychologists work in private practice. In this situation, trauma psychologists may offer individual, group, and family therapy in an office setting. Here, the trauma psychologist would undertake typical counseling duties, such as assessing the client, developing an understanding of their current problems and issues, and working with the client to overcome their trauma.

Treatment for people who have experienced a trauma typically includes methods that help them to overcome post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as by developing coping mechanisms to manage anxieties, fears, relationship troubles, etc. Treatment might also include certain forms of therapy that help to overcome the wounds of trauma, such as eye movement desensitization or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Yet other trauma psychologists are employed by government institutions, like the military. In this employment setting, trauma psychologists would work with military service people that are having difficulty coping with the things they have seen and done in the field of battle.

Military-based trauma psychologists work a lot with post-traumatic stress disorder, and helping people that suffer from PTSD to deal with their condition in the most effective manner possible. Trauma psychologists that work for the military might be deployed with troops overseas, or they might work on military bases or Veteran’s hospitals in the United States.

There are some trauma psychologists that work in research settings to study trauma and the underlying mechanisms that cause people fear, stress, and anxiety.

Research in this field may also involve working with drug companies to devise new drug therapies for trauma or working with mental health agencies to create intervention programs that help traumatized people return to a normal life once a crisis situation has concluded.

What are the Educational and Licensing Requirements to Become a Trauma Psychologist?

In order to become a trauma psychologist, you need to obtain a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in psychology.

A bachelor’s degree can usually be completed in four years of full-time coursework. A master’s degree can be completed in approximately two years. You might also be able to obtain a job in trauma psychology if you have a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in social work.

The main courses you will need to take relate to the history and theories of psychology. You will take certain courses related to developmental, cognitive, biological, and personality psychology.

Generally, a master’s degree will be sufficient for working as a trauma counselor or therapist, but, if you would like to become a “licensed” psychologist or work in academia/research, you would need to obtain a doctoral degree.

A doctoral can take approximately five to eight years of coursework including a research project (your dissertation) and an exam.

Throughout your education, you will be required to obtain in-field training, such as an internship. Also, you are required to go through a process of fees and testing in order to obtain licensure. Each state varies on the exact costs and requirements, but they all require licensure before being able to practice.

Also, continuing education (a certain amount of training hours) is required yearly to keep up on current knowledge. Oftentimes, this is around forty hours of training per year. Additionally, you should obtain specific training in working with trauma, such as through a certificate program.

Where Does a Trauma Psychologist Work?

Trauma psychologists generally obtain employment as a therapist in a mental health center, a treatment facility, a psychiatric hospital, or any other mental health setting.

What Skills are Needed for a Trauma Psychologist?

  • The ability to work with people being emotional.
  • Compassion and respect for people, especially for those who have experienced very difficult things.
  • The ability to hear and remain calm when clients share their stories which can be very devastating at times.
  • People in trauma are often so overcome that they have difficulty expressing what’s happened and how they feel. As a result, trauma psychologists must be able to communicate and listen effectively.
  • Trauma psychology is a high-stress occupation, so workers need to have a calm demeanor and be able to work under enormous pressure.
  • Addressing the needs of people in distress requires trauma psychologists to be able to solve problems quickly and efficiently.
  • Many people in need of trauma services are victims of crimes. As such, trauma psychologists need to project trustworthiness and care in order to develop a strong working relationship with their clients.
  • Overall, though, one needs to be fully accepting, nonjudgmental, and empathetic toward others, especially for patients.

What is the Salary of a Trauma Psychologist?

The average annual salary of a trauma psychologist varies depending on the location of your workplace, such as in a rural or urban setting, and with the type of agency you are at. For instance, you will likely make a higher salary working with veterans at a government agency rather than at a local mental health setting working for other types of trauma experiences. The average annual salary, overall, is $101,229.

What Careers are Similar to Trauma Psychology?

There are several specialties and professions, which are similar to the work of a trauma psychologist including the four professions listed below.

Health Psychologists: Health psychologists work with patients to determine how physical health is related and affected by emotional and mental health factors. They may address issues, such as chronic illness and pain and determine how the illness or injury is causing psychological problems. Similar to trauma psychologists, health psychologists understand the connection between the body and the mind. Health psychologists are required to have a doctorate to work in the field.

Neurological Psychologist: Neurological psychologists are experts in understanding the relationship between the physical brain and behaviors. They often work with people who have neurological conditions, such as a traumatic brain injury, to determine psychological issues related to the physical trauma and changes in the brain.

Although individuals with a master’s degree in psychology may be able to find employment in the field of neuropsychology, a doctorate is needed to practice as a   neurological psychologist.

Rehabilitation Psychologist: Individuals who have had events, such as an accident or significant illness and have disabilities may develop emotional, social or interpersonal issues related to their experience.

Rehabilitation psychologists identify issues and work with patients to overcome psychological problems and improve well-being. Similar to other types of psychologists, rehabilitation psychologists usually need a doctorate.

Mental Health Psychologist: Similar to trauma psychologists, mental health psychologists help people work through various types of issues and experiences that may be negatively affecting their emotional well-being. Although they may work with victims of trauma, they also tend to work with a broader patient population.

Mental health psychologists’ diagnosis and treat various types of problems and help patients gain a better understanding of issues. Individuals with a master’s degree in counseling may be eligible to work as mental health counselors. But a doctorate is needed to work in clinical practice as a mental health psychologist.

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