Preparing Trauma-Informed Career Counselors: Suggestions for Counselor Educators

By Lisa Cardello

The prevalence of experienced trauma among the US population is substantial. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, 2014) describes trauma as the result of “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening” (p. 7). Further, such events can have “lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (SAMHSA, 2014, p. 7). It is estimated that 70% of adults in the United States, or approximately 223.4 million individuals, have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives (Benjet et al., 2016). However, these statistics may be underestimated in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, SAMHSA (2022) estimates that more than two-thirds of children have experienced at least one traumatic event by the age of 16. Based on these statistics, it is likely that career practitioners will encounter clients affected by trauma during their careers. Therefore, counselor training programs should prepare counselors-in-training (CITs) to work with this population of clients.

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Utilizing a trauma-informed lens, the following suggestions may be beneficial for counselor educators to include in their students' program of study. 

Prepare CITs to Recognize Signs of Past Trauma

Clients may not initially disclose past trauma or mental health issues to career development professionals (Wright & Chan, 2022). Instead, clients may present with other work-related issues, such as

  • poor performance evaluations
  • difficulty interacting with co-workers and/or supervisors
  • disengagement
  • failed attempts at securing or maintaining employment
  • or overall dissatisfaction with work (Barriga, 2022; Johnson & Indvik, 1994; Strauser et al., 2006).

In addition, Wright and Chan (2022) found that workers affected by trauma resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic may “experience heightened physical and mental health issues” (p. 94). CITs must be adept at recognizing these issues as possible outcomes of experienced trauma and approach career work with these clients using a trauma-informed lens. SAMHSA’s Treatment Improvement Protocol for trauma-informed care in behavioral health settings is a free online resource which offers an excellent overview of the characteristics of trauma as well as case illustrations which can be incorporated into classroom lectures or small group discussions. 

Introduce Trauma-Informed Care (TIC)

A trauma-informed approach is one that “shifts the focus from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’” (Center for Health Care Strategies, 2021, para. 1). Although a formal model for TIC within career counseling does not currently exist, recent literature (i.e., Barrow et al., 2019; Linnekaste, 2021; Powers & Duys, 2020; Wright & Chan, 2022) demonstrate promise for integrating TIC within career counseling.  For example, a discussion on applying SAMHSA’s “4 Rs” (Realize, Recognize, Respond, Re-Traumatization) to a career counseling case may be beneficial for students’ application of trauma-informed care in this setting.

Promote Understanding of the Science of Trauma

Career practitioners have an important role to play in supporting clients’ understanding of how past trauma may be impacting career development and current work-related challenges. To provide holistic and adaptive career counseling, counselors and CITs must have a basic understanding of the science behind trauma and its impact on the brain (Powers and Duys, 2020). Powers and Duys (2020) explained: “counselors taking a trauma-informed approach must help clients understand the brain in simple terms easily translatable to their life experiences” (p. 181). Counselor educators have an opportunity to develop CITs’ basic understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain, which in turn will better equip them to understand and address their clients’ needs. For example, an introduction to the triune brain model may provide a simple and straightforward way to understand brain mechanisms and responses to trauma and their potential impact on daily function (Smith, 2018). 

Reinforce Core Counseling Skills

The importance of core counseling skills cannot be understated, especially when working with clients affected by trauma. Several authors have uncovered that career counseling is frequently viewed as peripheral to counselor training (Imbimbo, 1994; Lara, 2011; Lindo et al., 2019; Niles & Pate, 1989). Core skills and strategies used in mental health counseling (such as active listening, demonstrating empathy, and asking open-ended questions) are the same skills needed when working with trauma survivors in the career counseling setting (Neukrug, 2007). CITs would benefit from opportunities to reinforce core counseling skills and explore ways that these skills can be applied with clients experiencing career-related concerns. Role play activities are well-suited to provide practical application and practice.

Provide Opportunities for Meaningful Practice

A study of counselors-in-training enrolled in graduate career counseling courses conducted by Lara et al. (2011) revealed that “students were confident in their knowledge but were not confident in their ability to perform career counseling” (p. 437). The authors attribute this lack of confidence in part to the absence of practical application-oriented teaching (Lara et al., 2011). In teaching a trauma-informed approach to career counseling, the inclusion of case studies is an important aspect. Such studies can be used as a springboard for classroom discussion, small group work, or a graded assignment. Career counseling case studies which include clients affected by trauma can be found in The Career Counseling Casebook: A Resource for Students, Practitioners, and Counselor Educators (2nd edition) published by NCDA (2014). Specifically the hypothetical cases of Doug (p. 1), Raven (p. 315), Ann (p. 340), and Jim (p. 439) within the Casebook may be particularly useful for teaching trauma-informed career counseling practices (Niles et al., 2014). 

A Trauma-informed Lens for the Future

The impact of trauma on career development is undeniable. Counselor educators play an important role in preparing the next generation of career development professionals to approach their work with a trauma-informed lens, thus creating a safe and supportive environment for their future clients affected by trauma. 



Barriga, P. A. (2022, March). Embracing the reality of trauma and its impact in career  development. Career Convergence. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/pt/sd/news_article/424713/_PARENT/CC_layout_details/false 

Barrow, J., Wasik, S. Z., Corry, L. B., & Gobble, C. A. (2019). Trauma-informed career counseling: Identifying and advocating for the vocational needs of human services clients and professionals. Journal of Human Services, 39(1), 97-110. 

Benjet, C., Bromet, E., Karam, E. G., Kessler, R. C., McLaughlin, K. A., Ruscio, A. M., Shahly, V., Stein, D. J., Petukhova, M., Hill, E., Alonso, J., Atwoli, L., Bunting, B., Bruffaerts, R., Caldas-de-Almeida, J. M., de Girolamo, G., Florescu, S., Gureje, O., Huang, Y…. Koenen, K. C., The epidemiology of traumatic event exposure worldwide: Results from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium. Psychological Medicine, 46(2): 327–343.

Center for Health Care Strategies. (2021). What is trauma-informed care?  https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/what-is-trauma-informed-care/

Imbimbo, P. V. (1994). Integrating personal and career counseling: A challenge for counselors. Journal of Employment Counseling, 31(2), 50-59. 

Johnson, P. R. & Indvik, J. (1994). The impact of unresolved trauma on career management. Employee Counselling Today, 6(4), 10-15. 

Lara, T. M., & Kline, W. B., & Paulson, D. (2011) Attitudes regarding career counseling: Perceptions and experiences of counselors-in-training. Career Development Quarterly, 59(5), 428-440. 

Lindo, N. A., Cartwright, A. D., Ceballos, P., Connor, C., Edwards, J., & Blalock, S. (2019). Career Development Quarterly, 67(1), 62-76.  

Linnekaste, J. J. (2021). Trauma-informed career counselling to address work traumas resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. African Journal of Career Development, 3(1), 1-12. 

Neukrug, E. (2007). The world of the counselor: An introduction to the counseling profession (3rd ed.). Thomson. 

Niles, S. G., Goodman, J., & Pope, M. (Eds.). (2014). The career counseling casebook: A resource for students, practitioners, and counselor educators. National Career Development Association. 

Niles, S. G., & Pate, R. H. (1989). Competency and training issues related to the integration of career counseling and mental health counseling. Journal of Career Development, 16(1),

Powers, J. J., & Duys, D. (2020). Toward trauma-informed career counseling. Career Development Quarterly, 68(2), 173-185. 

Smith, C. M. (2018). How the brain and body change after a disaster. In J. M. Webber & J. B. Mascari (Eds.), Disaster mental health counseling: A guide to preparing and responding (pp. 45-59). American Counseling Association. 

Strauser, D. R., Lustig, D. C., Cogdal, P. A., & Uruk, A. C. (2006). Trauma symptoms: Relationship with career thoughts, vocational identity, and developmental work personality. Career Development Quarterly, 54(4), 346-360.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014, July). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4884.pdf 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2022, September 27). Understanding child trauma. https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma

Wright, G. G., & Chan, C. D. (2022). Integrating trauma-informed care into career counseling: A response to COVID-19 job loss for Black, indigenous, and people of color. Journal of Employment Counseling, 59(2), 91-99. 



Lisa Cardello 2023Lisa Cardello, EdS, NCC, BCC is a doctoral student in the CACREP-accredited PhD Program in Counseling and Supervision at Kean University. She also serves as the Executive Director of Career Preparation and Experiential Learning at Rowan College at Burlington County in New Jersey and an adjunct professor at Rider University where she teaches a graduate-level career counseling course. She earned her master’s (MA) degree in Counseling from The College of New Jersey and her Educational Specialist (EdS) degree in Counseling Services from Rider University. Lisa is a National Certified Counselor, Board Certified Coach, and Past President of the New Jersey Career Development Association. Lisa may be contacted at LisaMCardello@gmail.com

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Danielle Roessle, LCSW, GCDFI, CCSP   on Wednesday 03/01/2023 at 06:38 PM

Fantastic article Lisa. Bravo! I think it's great that you suggest that more education for career counseling students because trauma is human experience (whether it be a big T or small t). It's important to know how to work with it.

Sue Motulsky   on Thursday 03/02/2023 at 10:59 AM

Thank you Lisa for this crucial article and to make other counselor educator and career practitioners aware of taking a trauma informed counseling approach in the career domains. As a vocational psychologist and career counselor teaching these courses in a Master's program, I include this topic for counselors in training. For years, it has been difficult to find high quality articles on the topic but now I use both Powers & Duys and Wright & Chan articles in the class. The Wright and Chan has a case example as do many of the related articles using Psychology of Working by David Blustein and one case example by Hurless (2022). This topic needs to be discussed more frequently in career practice and education circles. I'm so glad you provided this.

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