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The Mental Health of Human Trafficking Survivors

Written by Manya Malhotra and edited by Nidhi Deshmukh

Human trafficking has the power to impact someone's life forever. It can have physical, emotional, and psychological effects on anyone involved. In this industry, not only the victim but also the perpetrator experiences trauma because of what they see and do to others. Many traffickers have been victimized themselves at some point in their lives. This month is mental health awareness month, and this article discusses the mental health and psychological repercussions on the survivors of human trafficking.

Many victims do not identify themselves as victims at first and commonly blame themselves for what has happened. Also, the traffickers intentionally claim women and girls as voluntary participants in the sex trade, and the victims might not know their physical location or understand the local language (Kaylor, 2015).

The victims usually experience mental trauma during or after their trafficking experience, and research from various countries has shown that anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, attempted suicide, and self-harm are all common among the survivors in the refuge services (Ottisova et al, 2016). Even severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and psychotic disorders, have been detected in the victims of human trafficking. While traumatic experiences in human trafficking can cause or worsen mental disorders, poor mental health may also increase the vulnerability to trafficking; these factors may also result in a reduced decision-making capacity as well as increased dependency on others. The survivors also face ostracism, and individuals who have been trafficked often become isolated from their friends, family, and other social circles. This may be due to personal feelings, such as guilt or remorse, or because they have relocated and the victims become isolated and withdrawn.

What are the challenges the victims face if they try seeking help? The traffickers monitor or restrict their movement, confiscate their identity, money, or cell phones, and forbid communication with their family and friends (Kaylor, 2015). Some individuals who escape a trafficking situation can be excluded from the social groups due to stigma and also may be shunned by their family and friends, who can make them feel unwanted and unloved. This isolation makes them vulnerable to being trafficked again or leads them to return to an abusive lifestyle.

Mental health professionals who have worked with sexually exploited women and children emphasize that trauma recovery can be critical to the victims’ ability to regain and repair their life (US Department of State, 2012). Evidence-based interventions such as narrative exposure therapy (NET), trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) for PTSD may be suitable for survivors to talk about their trauma. If the evidence-based psychological therapies aren't available or patients do not wish to engage or have ongoing severe stressors, then antidepressants also may be a treatment option (Abas et Al, 2013).

Overall, mental health problems are common among the trafficked survivors and often require support to recover from the psychological impact of their experiences. Survivors of human trafficking can heal psychologically with available access to suitable and culturally sensitive offerings and resources. Stabilizing the physical and psychological safety of a victim is a major requirement in working with trafficking survivors with trauma history.

Works Cited

Hartmann, Micah. “Causes & Effects of Human Trafficking.” Our Blog, 2020,

Altun, Sukran, et al. “Mental Health and Human Trafficking: Responding to

Survivors' Needs.” BJPsych International, The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 1 Feb. 2017,

Kaylor, Leah. Psychological Impact of Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery

Worldwide: Empowerment and Intervention, 2015,


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