How to Become a PTSD Counselor
The impact that war has on soldiers has been studied as far back as the American Civil War, when Jacob Mendez Da Costa, a cardiologist and assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army, started studying a condition in which soldiers reported a set of symptoms similar to heart disease, though no physical abnormalities could be found. This was one of the first times that medical professionals began to investigate the physical manifestations caused by experiencing or witnessing a violent or traumatic event during way.
Today, more of an understanding exists of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as professionals are learning more about the long-lasting physical and mental impact on a soldier’s life. While PTSD extends far beyond the military – affecting about eight million American adults a year – the problem is especially acute among veterans.
With the increasing awareness of PTSD, and a movement to encourage veterans of all ages to reach out for help, the need for professional PTSD counselors is on a similar increase. If you are interested in becoming a veterans’ counselor, you should become familiar with the varying professional opportunities, and the training involved with each.
How to Become a PTSD Counselor
There are many types of professionals who provide evidence-based psychotherapy and medication to people suffering from PTSD, and providers offer different services, based upon their expertise and licensing. Most of these professional roles require rigorous training and experience after a college degree, but the amount of schooling depends on the role. Some of these professionals focus primarily on counseling and treatment, while others can also prescribe medication. And while regular primary care physicians, physician's assistants, and nurse practitioners are usually qualified to prescribe medications for PTSD, it can be helpful to talk with a professional who specializes in trauma-related symptoms.
Some of the professional careers that can help treat PTSD include:
Licensed clinical psychologists focus on mental health assessment and treatment through counseling. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, they obtain a doctoral degree (e.g., PhD, PsyD, EdD) from four or more years of graduate training in clinical or counseling psychology. To be licensed to practice, psychologists must add another one to two years of supervised clinical experience. While psychologists hold the title of "doctor" because of their doctoral degree, in most states they cannot prescribe medicine.
Clinical Social Workers
Licensed social workers focus on diagnosis and treatment, and specialize in areas such as mental health, aging, marriage and family, and children. After graduating college, most licensed social workers have a master's degree from two years of graduate training (such as an MSW) or a doctoral degree in social work (such as an DSW or PhD). Clinical social workers do not prescribe medication.
Master's Level Clinicians
Master's level clinicians have a master's degree in counseling, psychology, or marriage and family therapy (such as MA or MFT) that they have earned after their college degree. To be licensed to provide individual and/or group counseling, master's level clinicians must meet requirements that vary by state. Master's level clinicians do not prescribe medication.
Psychiatrists have either a Doctor of Allopathic Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree in addition to specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems. Since they are medical doctors, psychiatrists can prescribe medicine. Some may also provide psychotherapy.
Psychiatric Nurses or Nurse Practitioners
Psychiatric mental health nurses (PMHN) can have different levels of training. Most are registered nurses (RN) with additional training in psychiatry or psychology. Psychiatric mental health advanced practice registered nurses (PMH-APRN) have a graduate degree. Psychiatric nurse practitioners are registered nurse practitioners with specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems. In most states, psychiatric nurses and psychiatric nurse practitioners can prescribe medicine.
Many professionals who wish to specialize in PTSD treatments choose to partner with the VA who employs a number of different types of mental health providers. Becoming a PTSD therapist with the VA first requires training and licensure in the roles described above. The VA also maintains a robust mental health career portal.
There are additional types of therapists, counselors, and mental health providers who are qualified to treat issues related to PTSD, and you can learn more in the career services department of your college or university, as well as professional associations for mental health providers. To find information about mental health licensure in your state, you can visit the National Board for Certified Counselors.
Written by Megan Hammons