Helm, Heather

Committee Member

Murdock Bishop, Jennifer

Committee Member

Kahlo, Danielle

Committee Member

Vaughan, Angela


College of Education and Behavioral Sciences; Applied Psychology and Counselor Education: Counselor Education and Supervision


University of Northern Colorado

Type of Resources


Place of Publication

Greeley (Colo.)


University of Northern Colorado

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261 pages

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Born digital


Thirty percent of the general population report one or more traumatic experiences (National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, 2019), and samples of mental health professionals report rates of traumatic experience as high as eighty percent (Pearlman & Mac Ian, 1995). Research on the neurobiological effects of trauma highlights the possibility of a trauma history uniquely impacting counselors-in-training (CITs) in their professional development and counseling work. This study focused on understanding the experiences of counselors-in-training (CITs) with complex trauma histories. Complex trauma is defined as a form of trauma that is chronic in nature and/or timing- specifically, an event perceived as threatening or deadly that occurs repeatedly to the individual and is often perceived as or is inescapable for that individual (Ford & Courtois, 2013). The symptoms of complex trauma may include those listed above, but also often include neurobiological changes that influence interpersonal symptoms such as withdrawal from social supports, distrust in others or the world, and maladaptive attachment patterns (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). Across the helping professions (e.g. counseling, social work, psychology, and nursing) researchers have considered the impact of helper trauma history on client care (Ghahramanlou & Brodbeck, 2000; Ortlepp & Friedman, 2005). The correlation between trauma history and risk for vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and burnout has been examined in several studies (Boscarino, Figley, & Adams, 2004; Conrad & Kellar- Guenther, 2006; Ghahramanlou & Brodbeck, 2000; Jenkins, Mitchell, Baird, Whitfield, & Meyer, 2011; Ortlepp & Friedman, 2005).While many researchers hypothesize a connection between a history of trauma and risk for impairment (Jenkins et al., 2011; Michalopoulos & Aparicio, 2012), only a few of the studies show a significant positive correlation between the two. Despite these mixed findings, researchers have not further examined counselors with trauma histories from another lens, and the counselor education and supervision literature does not specifically examine trainees. The literature is currently lacking exploration of such topics as counselors’ perception of their experiences in counselor training as survivors of trauma, their perceived challenges and strengths, and how they believe supervisors can assist them in the process of their development as counselors. In this phenomenological study of counselors-in-training with complex trauma histories, participants (N = 9) described four core groupings of characteristics that define the experience of these CITs: Experiencing Complex Trauma, Healing from Complex Trauma, The Impact of Complex Trauma on the Person of the Counselor, and the Education Experience. In experiencing complex trauma, participants described themes of Trauma is Never Done, Continued Contact with the Trauma System, Trauma and Part of the Personal and Professional Self, Questioning Normalcy and Effectiveness, and Feeling Alone. In Healing from Complex Trauma, participants described Meaning-Making and Attending Individual Counseling. In describing the Impact of Complex Trauma on the Person of the Counselor, participants identified the Desire to Provide Clients What One Did/Did Not Receive Emotionally, The Desire to Work with Clients Who Have Experienced Trauma, the Use of a Humanistic Orientation/Humanistic Characteristics in Approach, the Use of or Valuing of a Holistic/Somatic Approach, and Perceptivity/Empathy as Strengths Attributed to Traumatic Experiences. The Education Experience was marked by themes of Interactions with Faculty, Instructors, and Site Supervisors, Interactions with Colleagues, Influential Courses, Influential Assignments, and the sub-grouping of Considering Disclosure. Implications for Counselor Educators include the incorporation of trauma-informed approaches to education and supervision, modeling clear communication and boundaries for trainees, and advocating for CITs with complex trauma histories in the institution.

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