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What Careers in Psychology Are Appropriate for Those Wishing to Work with PTSD?

What Careers in Psychology Are Appropriate for Those Wishing to Work with PTSD?

Where Will You Find PTSD Sufferers?

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is a condition in which a person that has experienced trauma or witnessed trauma has difficulty recovering from the event.

This anxiety-related disorder can develop following child abuse, sexual assault, military combat, natural disasters, and other traumatic events. Currently, a lot of attention has been drawn to veterans with post-traumatic stress following tours of active duty, but people of all ages and many different life experiences need help managing the frightening symptoms of PTSD.

People with PTSD can experience its effects months or even years after the event, during which time a series of serious symptoms – intense emotional and physical reactions, anxiety, depression, nightmares, heightened reactions to stimuli, and suicidal ideation, among many others – can occur.

Fortunately, there are many forms of treatment that have proven to be effective for PTSD. In some cases, people with PTSD are treated with medications. In others, trauma-focused therapy shows promise. Yet other people show improvements with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). There are many other treatments that can bring relief to those who have PTSD.

Because PTSD is so common – approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults are diagnosed with it each year and one in 11 adults are diagnosed with it in their lifetimes – and because there are so many treatments available, there are many opportunities for mental health professionals to assist people with PTSD.

Whether you’re a clinical psychologist, a school counselor, a social worker, or another member of the helping professions, there will be occasions in which you can make a positive difference in the life of someone with this debilitating disorder.

Let’s explore some of the career options available for those who wish to work with people that have PTSD.

Where Do You Find People With PTSD?

Where Do You Find People With PTSD?

You encounter people suffering from PTSD every day, whether or not you know it.

As noted earlier, PTSD affects people of all walks of life and of all ages, though we tend to associate PTSD most commonly with combat veterans. According to the American Psychiatric Association, women are two times more likely to develop PTSD than men. Likewise, some ethnic groups, including African Americans, American Indians, and U.S. Latinos, have disproportionately higher rates of PTSD than white Americans.

People that have suffered abuse also experience PTSD at higher rates than the general population. This might be physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse. The abuse might have happened as a child, an adolescent, or as an adult. PTSD can develop as a result of these traumas relatively quickly, or it can manifest after a long period of time.

You don’t have to go to war or suffer abuse to develop PTSD, either. A serious car accident, serious health problems, or the loss of a loved one can trigger the development of PTSD. In today’s world, events like school shootings can trigger the development of PTSD amongst students, faculty, and staff members, and among the general public when mass shooting events occur.

What’s more, if you have anxiety or depression, or have had one or both conditions in the past, you might be more likely to develop PTSD after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. There is also a possible genetic component to the development of this disorder. Research indicates that having a parent with mental health problems might increase one’s likelihood of having PTSD.

These examples paint a picture of how widespread PTSD can be. It affects every corner of society, though to varying degrees. Some people simply seem to be better equipped to deal with traumatic events and simply do not develop PTSD, even in the face of overwhelming trauma. At this point, it is not completely understood why this is the case.

But, when asking the question, “Where do you find people with PTSD?” the answer is quite clear – people with PTSD are everywhere. They are in the military and in schools, they are in book clubs and on the train to work in the morning. Though it is sometimes called “shell shock,” PTSD is most certainly not restricted to people that have been on the battlefield.

What Careers Help People With PTSD?

What Careers Help People With PTSD?

With a better understanding of what PTSD is and insights into its presence throughout the population, you can see how important it is to have qualified and trained professionals to help people with PTSD.

While you might think of psychologists and counselors as “first responders” to PTSD, there are many other types of careers that allow you to provide aid to people with PTSD.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are medical doctors that have specialized in the practice of psychiatry. As medical doctors, psychiatrists are most likely to approach the treatment of PTSD from the medical model, which usually involves prescribing medication.

However, many psychiatrists will also engage in psychotherapy with clients that have PTSD. Both are proven treatments, and in some cases, psychiatrists will use a combination of medication and psychotherapy in their treatment plan.

Clinical Psychologists

Clinical psychologists are typically Ph.D.-level psychologists that have specialized in therapeutic techniques for treating mental disorders. Like psychiatrists, clinical psychologists work with clients to assess their condition, diagnose their condition, and carry out treatments for their condition.

In the case of PTSD, clinical psychologists will often engage their clients in psychotherapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT might involve a process called cognitive restructuring, in which the clinical psychologist helps their client work through feelings of guilt or shame that emanate from the traumatic event.

CBT might also involve exposure therapy, which is a treatment in which clients are gradually exposed to the trauma they have experienced in a controlled environment. For example, a client might be asked to write about the event, imagine the event and describe it to their therapist, or visit the place where the event happened.

It is important to note that some clinical psychologists specialize in the treatment of PTSD. This can be advantageous to clients that have PTSD, as a specialist in this field will have a greater breadth and depth of knowledge from which to draw on when diagnosing and treating the disorder.

School Counselors

Though school counselors are trained to provide academic support and guidance, and to treat emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders amongst students, they are increasingly on the front lines of traumatic experiences as school shootings have become commonplace in the United States.

But, as discussed earlier, the sources of PTSD development among children might also include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Bullying, natural or manmade disasters, and the death of friends or family members can also trigger the development of pTSD in kids.

School counselors might approach the treatment of PTSD in a student in a variety of ways. Psychotherapeutic techniques are common, both in a one-on-one setting and in small group settings as well. If there is a trauma that has been widely experienced (i.e., the death of a student), school-wide interventions might be implemented.

However, small group interventions seem to be among the most efficacious treatments in this setting. The Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) is a ten-session group therapy treatment that has shown positive results for PTSD treatment in elementary-aged and middle school-aged children. Additionally, Multimodality Trauma Treatment (MMTT), which is a 14-session group program that uses peer modeling of effective coping, has shown promise as a treatment of PTSD in school-aged kids.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Like clinical psychologists, school counselors, and psychiatrists, licensed clinical social workers are trained to assess, diagnose, and treat clients that have PTSD. A primary difference, though, between an LCSW and a psychologist is that they often provide case management services as well. In other words, LCSWs often provide more holistic services to people with PTSD.

For example, where a clinical psychologist might focus their attention on treating PTSD in a therapeutic setting, an LCSW might also add services like helping a client find employment, stable housing, or government services like welfare that would help improve the client’s overall state of being.

In terms of treating PTSD, an LCSW will usually rely on the same techniques as others in the helping professions – psychotherapy and CBT being some of the most popular.

Research Psychologists

Psychologists that specialize in research don’t provide counseling or therapy to people that have PTSD. Instead, their focus is on researching PTSD to develop a better understanding of its causes, how it manifests, and how it might be treated.

For example, a research psychologist might be involved in a clinical trial for a new medication for treating PTSD. They would design the study, recruit participants, collect and analyze data, and then report their findings.

Just like research in any other field, the work that is done in researching PTSD can have significant impacts on how the disorder is diagnosed and treated. This, in turn, can mean that people with PTSD get better help and can recover faster and experience less ongoing symptoms as well. So, while research psychologists might not be directly involved in treating individual clients, their work behind the scenes can certainly impact how other professionals help people with PTSD.

Other Professions

Because the anxiety from severe trauma can emerge at any time, police officers, EMTs and other first responders are being increasingly trained to help those suffering from PTSD.

While their training won’t include the specialized treatments that a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist might have, they are often trained in recognizing and understanding the symptoms of PTSD. First responders will also often have training in how to properly approach someone with PTSD and how to de-escalate the situation. Just as importantly, first responders are trained in what not to do when encountering someone with PTSD.

Classroom teachers might also be faced with situations in which they work with students with PTSD. Again, while teachers aren’t going to have a wealth of knowledge of therapeutic treatments for PTSD, they can be trained like first responders to understand the signs and symptoms of PTSD and how to help someone experiencing anxiety, stress, or other symptoms of PTSD.

These are just two examples of professionals that might work with people with PTSD on a short-term basis. There are many other careers and work settings in which you might be called upon to assist someone that is having difficulties with PTSD. From school bus drivers to nursing home managers, Certified Nursing Assistants to 911 operators, people from all walks of life and professions can provide help to people with PTSD.

What Type of Degree Can Be Used to Help People With PTSD?

By and large, to work with people with PTSD in a clinical or therapeutic setting, you will need to have at least a master’s degree, and in many cases, a Ph.D. To be a school counselor, for example, you would need a master’s degree. To be a clinical psychologist, a doctorate is necessary. If research psychology interests you, you might be able to work as a research assistant while you’re pursuing your master’s degree or doctorate. These degrees are most typically in psychology, counseling, or social work.

Usually, a master’s degree in psychology or a related field will take 2-3 years to complete after a bachelor’s degree. Programs vary quite a bit, though, so in some cases the timeline might be shorter or longer.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors, so having a medical degree is required. In many cases, psychiatrists often complete post-doctoral studies or participate in research projects that expand their knowledge and skills. These experiences are valuable, to say the least, but they do extend the time spent in school and in training. Between one’s medical training, fellowships, and research experiences, it could be a full decade of education.

The other professions discussed earlier – first responders and teachers – have varying levels of education that are required. To be a first responder, you don’t need a degree at all. A career as a firefighter, EMT, or law enforcement officer usually requires a high school diploma and on-the-job training.

Teachers need a bachelor’s degree, usually in the subject matter they will teach. Many teachers go on to get a master’s degree or even a doctorate, though they are usually in areas like curriculum and instruction rather than a content area.

In both cases, first responder and teacher training might not have particularly robust training in working with people that have PTSD. This means that additional training and certifications are often pursued so people in these and other professions are better equipped to provide assistance when needed.

How Can You Help Today?

Although treatment for PTSD requires help from individuals with advanced degrees, you can help today by raising awareness or volunteering with programs that exist to help survivors. 

The Wounded Warrior Project needs volunteers to help support war veterans with a variety of wartime injuries, including post-traumatic stress. You can also find places to help in your own community through organizations that reach out to children and families that have experienced trauma.

People who care can do powerful good. If you want to show how much you care through careers for treating PTSD, you’ll need to spend a lot of time studying and learning. But that time and effort on your part will be highly rewarded when you’re able to help someone work through the traumas in their life.

Sean Jackson

B.A. Social Studies Education | University of Wyoming

M.S. Counseling | University of Wyoming

B.S. Information Technology | University of Massachusetts

Updated June 2021

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