Treating the Hidden Wounds: Trauma Treatment and Mental Health Recovery for Victims of Human Trafficking. Post-Trauma Responses for Victims of Human Trafficking


Most of the literature on trauma and trafficking focuses on the trafficking of foreign-born women and girls for commercial sexual exploitation.  In addition to experiencing terrorizing physical and sexual violence, researchers report that victims often experience multiple layers of trauma including psychological damage from captivity and fear of reprisals if escape is contemplated, brainwashing, and for some, a long history of family, community, or national violence (Stark & Hodgson, 2003; Ugarte, Zarate, & Farley, 2003).

Additionally, the emotional effects of trauma can be persistent and devastating.  Victims of human trafficking may suffer from anxiety, panic disorder, major depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders as well as a combination of these.  For some victims, the trauma induced by someone they once trusted results in pervasive mistrust of others and their motives.  This impact of trauma can make the job of first responders and those trying to help victims difficult at best. 

In some cases, the exposure to trauma results in a condition referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  PTSD is a mental health diagnostic category created originally for war combatants and disaster victims but which also applies to victims of other traumas, including trafficking victims.  For those that struggle with PTSD, the characterizing symptoms include intrusive re-experiencing of the trauma (e.g., flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts), avoidance or numbing of trauma-related, or trauma-triggering, stimuli (e.g. avoiding certain places, people, and situations), and hyper arousal (e.g., heightened startle response, and inability to concentrate).  For both adults and youth, once established, PTSD is usually chronic and debilitating if left untreated (Feeny, Foa, Treadwell & March, 2004).

Post-trauma responses like those outlined above reportedly contribute to problems with functioning, including difficulties controlling emotions, sudden outbursts of anger or self-mutilation (Briere & Gil, 1998), difficulties concentrating, suicidal behaviors (Zlotnick, Donaldson, Spirito, & Pearlstein, 1997), alterations in consciousness (dissociation), and increased risk taking. These post-traumatic symptoms and problems reflect those service providers often identify as common among the trafficking victims they work with.  For some victims, in particular victims of sex trafficking, the use of alcohol and drugs to escape these emotional states is also a problem.

We cant address issues of employment, life skills, or anything else until we address the trauma. How can we expect someone to get a job when they cant even get out of bed or are afraid to leave the shelter?

Case manager

In addition to emotional problems, physical health problems can also predominate and result from the trauma of physical injury or indirectly through stress-related illnesses.  For example, service providers report victims often complain of stomach pain, headaches, and other unexplained ailments.  Given the impact of these trauma symptoms on the emotional and physical well-being of victims, it is not surprising that some victims of human trafficking experience difficulties obtaining and holding down a job, paying bills, and reintegrating back into society.

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