Trauma and crises are an unfortunate part of life. Car accidents, riots, shootings, natural disasters, and war are just a few of the usual culprits that can traumatize people. Imagine a tornado or hurricane has ravaged your city. Even if you’ve come through unscathed, your friends, family, and coworkers may have lost their homes, their belongings, or even their lives. While depressing to think about, this is a reality that people face each and every day in every corner of the world.
Trauma psychology is a specialization within the field of clinical and counseling psychology. Trauma psychologists work with victims of the situations outlined above to help them cope with their feelings, develop strategies for recovery, and build skills that will help bring about closure. But before trauma psychologists can work with clients, they must undertake a significant amount of schooling. This schooling begins at the bachelor’s degree level and extends for many psychologists through a doctoral program. The time spent in school may offer trauma psychology students a valuable opportunity to learn how to become effective psychologists and put their learning into practice, so that upon graduation they are ready to respond well to crisis situations.
What is a Trauma Psychology Degree?
A degree in trauma psychology prepares students to tend to the psychological and emotional needs of people in crisis. Crisis in this sense can mean a variety of things, from experiencing grief after the death of a loved one to surviving a catastrophic event like an earthquake to being the victim of a violent crime. In any situation in which trauma is involved, trauma psychologists are able to work with individuals on the immediate effects of their trauma, as well as address the long-term ramifications of the traumatic experience.
To begin one’s education in trauma psychology, a bachelor’s degree should be obtained. Typical undergraduate programs in psychology include 120 semester credit hours, which takes about four years to complete. Admission into bachelor’s degree programs can vary widely from one college to the next, but prospective students should expect the following common requirements:
- A GED or high school diploma
- A minimum high school GPA, such as 2.5 on a 4.0 scale
- Satisfactory scores on the SAT or ACT
Undergraduate programs in trauma psychology do not exist, rather, bachelor’s degree programs are much broader in scope. At this level, students are introduced to central topics in the field of psychology. This might include studies of:
- General Psychology – The foundational course in an undergraduate psychology program, general psychology offers students an introduction to many different aspects of studies in this field. This includes everything from emotional development in childhood to brain-based causes of behavior to the history of psychology as a science.
- Developmental Psychology – Another foundational course is developmental psychology. Coursework in this class revolves around how humans develop and change over time. Students examine the development of language in infancy and early childhood, explore social relationships and their impact on behavior, and examine how cognitive tasks, such as memory, degrade as we age.
- Psychology of Learning – This course helps students better understand how humans learn, retain, and apply new information. Various learning theories are explored, including classical and operant conditioning, behaviorism, constructivism, and social learning theory.
- Psychological Statistics – Because psychology often requires much research, students must learn how to calculate, analyze, and interpret statistical information. Students learn how to determine mean, median, and mode, calculate ANOVAs, find standard deviations, and other descriptive statistics. Inferential statistics are also explored, with students learning how to estimate parameters and testing hypotheses.
- History and Systems of Psychology – This course offers students insight into the development of psychology as a science. Students explore the transition of philosophical thought to the science of psychology. The contributions of major figures such as Sigmund Freud, John Watson, and B.F. Skinner are explored as well. Major psychological theories are also examined, including structuralism, functionalism, Gestalt psychology, and psychoanalysis.
Master’s degree programs in this area are usually in counseling psychology or clinical psychology, with a specialization in trauma or crisis intervention. Like other master’s degree programs in psychology, those with a focus on trauma psychology can require more than 60 credits of coursework, which represents several years of work to be completed. Also commonly required is fieldwork in which students utilize their content knowledge and practical skills to work with actual clients that have experienced trauma of some kind. While the requirements for fieldwork will vary from graduate school to graduate school, students can expect to complete anywhere from 600-1,000 hours of fieldwork under the supervision of an experienced and licensed psychologist.
Another component of graduate programs that varies from institution to institution are the entrance requirements. In some instances, students need little more than a satisfactory undergraduate GPA and adequate scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). However, other programs have much more stringent requirements that may include completion of required prerequisites, undergraduate research experience, recommendations from undergraduate professors, a personal statement, a curriculum vitae, or participation in an interview process.
Once admitted to a graduate program, prospective trauma psychologists will take part in advanced studies in the field. These courses might include:
- Counseling Theory – In this course, students develop a working understanding of various counseling theories and how each is used to help a client overcome their trauma. For example, students might learn how to use cognitive-behavioral therapy to help a client change negative thought patterns in order to change the way they feel.
- Psychopathology and Diagnosis – Coursework in this area centers around building competencies in identifying the cause of psychological stress, properly evaluating clients, and issuing an appropriate diagnosis. In the field of trauma psychology, this might involve evaluating a client for PTSD, diagnosing their condition, and developing an appropriate course of treatment for the disorder.
- Grief and Loss Counseling – This class emphasizes the development of skills that allow a trauma psychologist to understand the processes related to grief and acquire the counseling skills necessary to offer effective treatment to persons that have experienced a loss. Students will learn how to respond appropriately to clients of all ages who are in various stages of grief.
- Crisis Intervention and Treatment Methods – Classes in crisis intervention and treatment methods include a study of evidence-based applications of crisis management theory. Students acquire knowledge of various crisis intervention methods, as well as essential skills that allow them to address a host of crisis-related issues, including domestic violence, school violence, and threat of suicide, to name a few.
- Internship – The graduate internship gives students real-world experience in working in trauma and crisis situations, such as in an emergency room or shelter for abused women. In these settings, students utilize the knowledge and skills they have gained throughout their schooling to provide assistance to traumatized clients. This work is done under strict supervision of a licensed psychologist.
As at the graduate level, doctoral students pursuing an education in trauma psychology most often complete a program of study in the clinical psychology or counseling psychology realms, with specialized coursework in working with traumatized populations. Unlike graduate school, in which students take part in extensive coursework, the doctoral level is less about coursework and more about independent research and supervised practice. Nevertheless, there are several courses that are commonly required for trauma psychology at the doctoral level:
- Assessment of Trauma – Students learn about various instruments they can use to screen their clients and assess their traumatic symptoms. These might include self-report or interview-based instruments like the Brief Trauma Questionnaire, the PTSD Checklist, the UCLA Reaction Index, or the Upsetting Events Survey, to name a few. Various assessment procedures for different populations, such as children or military personnel, would likely be reviewed as well.
- Treatment of Trauma – Coursework on treatments for trauma build on the knowledge and skills students gained at the graduate level and allow them to apply their skills specifically to the treatment of traumatized clients. This might involve learning specific treatments like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which involves patterned eye movements that are thought to allow clients to “unlock” traumatic memories such that they can work through them.
- Research – As mentioned above, the bulk of a doctoral candidate’s time is spent conducting research. This generally includes proposing, carrying out, and reporting on original research on a trauma-related topic. Some doctoral programs will require the work to be published in a journal or presented at a symposium for credit to be earned.
- Dissertation – The doctoral dissertation involves much research as well. Generally, one’s doctoral committee must approve the topic under study, and the topic must be of value and contribute to a better understanding of trauma psychology.
- Practicum/Internship – Doctoral students must participate in extensive practicum and internship experiences specifically in the field of trauma psychology. Like with internships at the graduate level, the purpose of these experiences is to place students in real-world situations such that they can hone their skills working with actual clients and get feedback about their performance from licensed professionals.
What Can You Do With a Degree in Trauma Psychology?
An advanced degree in trauma psychology may open many avenues to employment for psychologists. One of the most popular employment settings for trauma psychologists is private practice. Here, trauma psychologists can specialize in working with a specific group, such as survivors of domestic violence, or they can treat trauma in general. Some trauma psychologists in private practice make a living responding to natural or man-made disasters, offering their services as part of relief organizations that seek to help people recover from crisis situations.
Another potential career path for a trauma psychologist is to work for the military. With the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans of the armed services, trauma psychologists have a definite role to play in helping veterans cope with the traumas they have experienced as part of their service to the country. Military-based employment might mean a trauma psychologist serves overseas, and potentially even in a war zone. Many other trauma psychologists work stateside in veteran’s hospitals.
Mental health centers often employ trauma psychologists as well. While psychologists in this work setting may not focus all their time on treating clients that are traumatized, their training and expertise can be relied upon in the event of a local emergency. This is especially beneficial in less populated regions where trauma psychologists may not be in great number.
Yet another employment option is to work for a government agency. Trauma psychologists may be part of a state’s emergency response team and use their skills to treat survivors of a crisis situation. Psychologists may also spend a significant portion of their day conducting research into how humans cope with stress, anxiety, fear, and other emotions associated with trauma. Additionally, they might work to develop intervention programs that promote a return to normal functioning after a crisis situation has passed.
What Degrees are Similar to Trauma Psychology?
Trauma psychology, with its roots in clinical psychology and counseling psychology, has many related areas of study. Among the most closely related fields are:
Clinical psychology – Clinical psychology is the basis upon which trauma psychology is founded. As that basis, clinical psychology is much broader in scope, with coursework focusing on treating clients with a host of psychological issues, not just those related to trauma.
Child psychology – Unfortunately, children are often traumatized and require extensive psychological help to overcome the trauma they have experienced. Like trauma psychology, child psychology is but one form of clinical psychology, in which psychologists employ their knowledge of human behavior to diagnose, assess, and treat psychological disorders.
Marriage and family therapy – Degrees in marriage and family therapy share the clinical focus of trauma psychology, but with a greater emphasis on everyday issues that prevent couples and families from functioning at their best. Also similar to trauma psychology is a focus on brief, solution-focused treatments to help clients effectively deal with current issues that negatively impact their psychological wellbeing.
Health and wellness psychology – Degrees that focus on health and wellness are intended to shed light on how psychological issues can impact one’s physiological and emotional functioning. The information gleaned from these studies is often used to design preventions and interventions that promote improved overall health.
Mental health counseling – Like the other degree options listed above, mental health counseling trains students to provide treatments to people that are coping with psychological or emotional issues. Students in this type of program develop clinical counseling skills to include in the treatments they offer. These programs may also offer a specialization so students can work with a particular group of people, such as children or the elderly.