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Mental Health Awareness Month

Managing PTSD and Anxiety with Clients Who Are Human Trafficking Victims

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Human trafficking is a national crisis in the United States. According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking “involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” It is not limited to any single community, age, race, gender, or nationality, claiming an estimated 40.3 million victims across the globe.

Today, the United States is currently one of the largest consumers of commercial sex worldwide.

While it is impossible to nail down just how many victims suffer in the U.S. each year from forced labor and commercial sex trafficking, the impact on victims is felt for a lifetime. Individuals who live through these unique and painful experiences often go on to deal with mental health conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression for the rest of their lives – often struggling to find quality care.

Mental health providers across the country need to do their part to better understand the unique impact of human trafficking and how to better serve clients managing PTSD and anxiety.

U.S. Human Trafficking Statistics:

  • It is nearly impossible to know exactly how many victims of human trafficking exist in the United States. It is hidden and secretive in nature – meaning there are probably far more victims than we realize.  
  • According to the International Labour Organization, 4.8 million people are involved in forced sexual exploitation worldwide, and more than 1 million of those victims are children.
  • Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.
  • 90.8% of trafficking survivors reported being arrested, according to the National Survivor Network. Only 10% of buyers are arrested.
  • 92% of Victims are physically assaulted, according to Loyola University’s Annals of Health Law.
  • It is projected that between 60% and 70% of trafficked children in the U.S. come from child social services or the foster care system.  
  • LGBTQ youth have higher runaway rates, a higher likelihood of discrimination/violence/economic problems, and are therefore more vulnerable to being trafficked.
  • 84% of those in sex trafficking/slavery were sexually abused as children.
  • Over 15% of all men in America purchase sex
  • 36% of sex-trafficked children in the U.S. are biologically born males
  • 90% of women want to get out of prostitution but feel trapped or do not know how
  • 25% of all trafficking victims are children
  • 75% of trafficking victims are women and girls.

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The Unique Impact of Trauma on Human Trafficking Victims:

Trafficking victims often go through experiences that are overwhelming at the least and at the most, horrifying, life-altering, and emotionally scarring. Regardless of the details, sex exploitation and forced labor are not experiences that a person is likely to move past with ease. Survivors of trafficking often leave those experiences with mental, emotional, and sometimes behavioral health issues that they will need help with for years to come.

Most commonly, human trafficking victims will experience PTSD due to the traumatic experiences they encounter, such as abuse, isolation, their needs not being met, and violence, as well as witnessing other atrocities.

Impacts of PTSD on Human Trafficking Survivors:

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder described as being “triggered by a terrifying event – either experiencing it or witnessing it.” According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), those diagnosed with PTSD may experience symptoms such as:

  • Intrusive Thoughts – Victims may experience repeated or frequent flashbacks, memories, or dreams regarding the events they experience. Sometimes these memories can feel like they are occurring in real-time.
  • Avoidance – Avoiding people, places, activities, objects, and situations that are likely to or have triggered a memory regarding their experience. They may avoid talking about what has happened to them.
  • Change in Cognitive Function/Mood – Trouble remembering details of their experience, distorted thoughts about one’s self or others due to experiences, feelings of being detached or unable to have positive emotions.
  • Alterations in Arousal or Reactivity – Irritable/angry outbursts, reckless behavior, overly suspicious, easily startled, trouble concentrating or sleeping.

Trafficking victims with PTSD may experience intrusion that leads them to have vivid memories of their experiences. They may avoid situations that cause them to remember what they experienced. They may have obvious changes in their cognition and mood as a result of what they went through, and they may be actively angry, reckless, suspicious, or otherwise in an effort to protect themselves.

Steps Mental Health Providers Can Take to Help Human Trafficking Survivors

Providers with experience treating PTSD and anxiety are the best equipped to help survivors of human trafficking. Even better, providers with previous experience working with victims of trafficking are the best prepared to help individuals navigate these unique and difficult challenges.

For providers working with survivors, consider the following care tips:

Offer Consistency – Do your best to create a consistent and regular schedule with your clients to provide routine to their care. This regularity can help create a structure where there may be some lacking, but it can also help them know that you are always there. Digital scheduling tools can be a great way to schedule in advance so that you and your client can always align on expectations.

Give Them Agency – Agency is everything to those who have had it taken from them at any point. Victims of trafficking deserve every last bit of agency and independence possible throughout every area of their life. Offer your clients agency flexible in-person and online visits with telehealth. If your client is feeling anxious and wants to stay home one day, offer to meet them via telehealth so that they can.

Use ShareNote Community to Fuel Your Efforts:

Today, telehealth is an essential part of any practice of any size. Use ShareNote Community to access a group-capable, secure, HIPAA-certified system that protects their privacy. Get a free demo today!



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