Vicarious Traumatization, Trauma-Sensitive Supervision, and Counselor Preparation

By Sommer, Carol A. | Counselor Education and Supervision, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Vicarious Traumatization, Trauma-Sensitive Supervision, and Counselor Preparation


Sommer, Carol A., Counselor Education and Supervision


Counselor educators have an ethical responsibility to prepare counselors and supervisors to detect and resolve vicarious traumatization in themselves and their supervisees. This article reviews relevant literature on vicarious traumatization and strategies to mitigate it. Also included is a review of the American Counseling Association's (2005) ACA Code of Ethics and the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs' (2007) proposed 2009 standards as each relates to trauma counseling and vicarious traumatization. Specific counselor preparation practices are suggested.

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Traumatic events occur more frequently than many people would like to believe. Aside from random violent crimes, school shootings, and domestic violence, people can be traumatized by human-created tragedies, such as war and terrorist attacks, or by a variety of natural disasters. Although many counselors will never work in a rape crisis center, a Veteran's Administration hospital, or other agency in which crisis is the primary focus, the likelihood of encountering clients with trauma-related issues is still high. Collins and Collins (2005) noted examples of traumatic events with wide-scale impact, including the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the Littleton, Colorado, school shooting; the January 2001 El Salvador earthquake; and the frequent reports of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic church. Two recent events can be added to this list: the 2004 Sumatra tsunami, which killed tens of thousands in Asia, and Hurricane Katrina, which devastated much of the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005. Trauma can also have a historical basis that requires multicultural sensitivity. Dass-Brailsford (2007) pointed out that intergenerational and multicultural trauma can have deleterious effects on Native Americans, African Americans, and Japanese Americans. Trippany, White Kress, and Wilcoxon (2004) also discussed the prevalence of traumatic events, noting that "counselors in virtually all settings work with clients who are survivors of trauma" (p. 31). Clients who are traumatized can be encountered in the office or in response to a disaster. Members of the American Counseling Association (ACA) will most likely remember the requests for counselors to help after the September 11 terrorist attacks and after Hurricane Katrina. Given the prevalence of diverse traumatic experiences that may lead individuals to seek counseling and the likelihood that most counselors will encounter clients who are traumatized, it seems imperative that counselors are adequately prepared. Although trauma-related events affect both individuals and the counselors who work with them, this article focuses on the effects of vicarious exposure to trauma. It has a fourfold purpose: (a) to ensure that vicarious traumatization remains a topic of discussion in the counseling profession, (b) to point out that the literature reports methods of mitigating the effects of vicarious exposure to trauma, (c) to introduce the idea that counselor educators have an ethical responsibility to provide specific training in this area to prevent potential harm to clients and counselors, and (d) to recommend counselor preparation practices.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Vicarious Traumatization

Individuals exposed to extreme stressors may develop PTSD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text rev.; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2000) indicates that individuals with PTSD usually experience problems in three areas: (a) persistent reexperiencing of the traumatic event via flashbacks, dreams, and other unwanted recollections, as well as persistent psychological or physiological distress with exposure to cues related to the trauma; (b) persistent avoidance of stimuli or cues related to the traumatic event; and (c) persistent symptoms of increased arousal, such as hypervigilance and exaggerated startle response. …

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