The Connection Between Human Trafficking and PTSD

Image credit: Wabi TV

Whenever people hear of a trafficking victim being rescued, we often think "That's great! The worst is over. Now that they have been rescued, it's all going to be smooth sailing for that person." In actuality, getting rescued is only the beginning. The impact of human trafficking on one's mental health is extremely damaging. Many victims of human trafficking suffer the effects of PTSD.

Let's start out with a definition of what PTSD is. According to the Mayo Clinic, post-traumatic stress disorder (better known as PTSD) is a mental health condition "that is triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it." These "events" can include actual or life-threatening violence, serious injury, or sexual abuse or exploitation. In many cases, when we hear the word "PTSD," we think of veterans, as they witnessed events none of us can fathom. However, human trafficking victims do get overlooked when discussing PTSD. 

What are the symptoms of PTSD? As stated by the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, there are three main types of symptoms:

  1. Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
  2. Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
  3. Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.
How can someone who has been trafficked experience PTSD? It's pretty simple. Defined by the DOJ, human trafficking is defined as "a crime that involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts." Contrary to popular belief, the coercion that traffickers use doesn't involve as much violence. Instead, majority of coercion is non-physical. The use of psychological coercion can create as much damage to a person as physical person. Some examples of psychological coercion can include watching your every move, controlling your finances, telling you where you can or can't go, getting angry at the littlest thing, disparaging you or your self-esteem, and more

The process of getting a victim to become compliant and reliant on their trafficker is mainly through non-violence. A pimp might tell his girl that he's got indecent photos of her "performing," threatening to send them to her friends and family to shame her and embarrass them. That girl will do whatever that pimp tells her to do. Some victims might witness the assault of other victims. In other cases, that victim has his/her family threatened. The constant fear of being exposed, the continuation of threats, the potential physical abuse, in addition to the sexual abuse she or he is facing, all can lead to what is known as PTSD.

Due to their experiences, victims feel they cannot move on. They have to watch their backs. There is a feeling of being in danger 24/7 based on their previous difficulties. Just like veterans, PTSD can overtake a human trafficking survivor's life. Survivors might also experience high levels of anxiety and/or depression.

To help survivors of human trafficking who suffer from PTSD, anxiety, or depression, mental health services are necessary. As I have shared earlier, I have begun my Master's in Applied Behavior Practice, so I may earn my certificate to become a licensed behavior analyst. While most people who choose this degree go into fields relating to children (specifically children with autism), in my research for this degree, I have learned that you can work in mental health services. I would like to work with individuals who suffer with PTSD (either veterans or human trafficking victims). I believe this is the path I am meant to go on. 

You may be wondering how applied behavior analysis could be used to treat PTSD. There's a concept, which is basically the building blocks of ABA. They're called the ABCs of ABA: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence. An antecedent is something that triggers a certain behavior. It is something you can hear, smell, see, or touch. The behavior is how that individual responds, either physically or non-physically. The consequence is the end result of what behavior occurred. A behavior analyst will work with a client to see what antecedent causes the behavior, and how to reinforce good behavior, while slowly stopping bad ones.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious issue. We cannot stay silent on those suffering. Human trafficking victims need proper support, so they may be able to live the happy life they deserve.

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