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National Human Trafficking Awareness Day: Meeting mental health needs of human trafficking survivors

National Human Trafficking Awareness Day: Meeting mental health needs of human trafficking survivors

Human trafficking is a global problem. The 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), highlighted that “victims are trafficked along a multitude of trafficking flows; within countries, between neighboring countries or even across different continents.”

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) defines human trafficking as a “crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services, or commercial sex.” According to the Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center (OVC TTAC), a part of the DOJ, the physical and psychological abuse experienced by human trafficking victims can result in serious mental disorders. Victims often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, panic attacks and substance abuse. There is also a prevalence of self-harm and attempted suicide among survivors.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is not immune to the scourge of human trafficking, considered a modern-day form of slavery. Victims, who are either Americans or of foreign nationalities, may be subjected to gross injustices, including sexual exploitation, forced labor, unwanted marriages, involuntary servitude and debt bondage. To increase public awareness about human trafficking and direct attention to its vulnerable victims, Americans observe January 11 every year as the National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

Risk of mental disorders

Mental disorders among human trafficking victims may be influenced by multiple factors, such as pre-trafficking abuse, period of mistreatment or exploitation, exposure to violence, restrictions on movement, relatively higher unmet needs, and lower post-trafficking social support. Most victims often experience, witness or are involved in incidents of actual or impending death, grave physical/mental harm or other impending dangers.

Victims’ responses to such traumatic situations frequently mirror common symptoms of PTSD, including extreme fear, helplessness or horror. Physical and/or sexual abuse victims of trafficking also have a higher risk of developing dissociative disorders, characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, consciousness, memory, identity or perception.

The UNODC report highlighted that in 2014, nearly 71 percent of global human trafficking victims were women and girls. Past research has found that the majority of women who have survived sex trafficking suffer from mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, PTSD, or disorders of extreme stress not otherwise specified (DESNOS), a severer diagnosis of PTSD. The survivors also suffer from secondary issues such as substance abuse and other co-occurring illnesses.

In the U.S., the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking between 2008 and 2010. In 2016, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 26,727 calls and registered 7,621 human trafficking cases. Till June 30, 2017, 13,897 calls and 4,460 cases were registered. While these numbers may seem low, human trafficking is difficult to identify and largely goes unnoticed. These numbers represent only those cases which have been detected.

Complex mental health needs of human trafficking survivors

Before commencement of treatment, traumatized victims need to be reassured about their physical and psychological safety, particularly since they will face difficulty in establishing trusting relationships with strangers. Cultural and linguistic barriers can complicate the treatment process, as can the prevalence of co-occurring disorders. Many victims of sexual abuse may not feel comfortable with their sexuality. Any treatment for mental illnesses among such survivors should aim at helping them navigate this aspect since it may be the key component of dealing with their traumatic experiences.

While trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is often used to heal such victims, it may not be beneficial for those with DESNOS. Alternative treatments such as a peer-support model and art/music therapy may provide a greater sense of comfort and help victims in making connections between their physical and mental health. Evidence-based interventions for PTSD like narrative exposure therapy (NET), TF-CBT and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) may be appropriate for survivors who are willing to discuss their trauma.

Women comprise the majority of human trafficking victims, and treatment for survivors must be customized to suit their specific needs. Recover Mental Health can help you locate the best rehab for women offering evidence-based treatment for PTSD and other mental disorders. Call at our 24/7 helpline number 866-593-2339 or chat online with one of our experts to know about the best women’s rehab centers for mental health disorders in your vicinity.

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