Mental health problems as consequence of human trafficking

Bad mental health, self-harm, and suicide attempts are common among people who have been trafficked for forced labor or sexual exploitation. The United Nations (UN) broadly defines human trafficking as “the acquisition of people by improper means such as force, fraud or deception with the aim of exploiting and engaging them in sexual activity without consent.”

Based on the previous definition, several studies have identified the serious and often complex mental health needs of victims of human trafficking. The majority of research related to the mental health needs of this specific group of people focuses on the significant levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Since victims of human trafficking have often experienced, witnessed, or confronted events involving actual or threatened death, serious physical and mental injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, their response to these events frequently involves intense fear, helplessness, or horror; common reactions of the main criteria for PTSD.

In addition to PTSD, victims of human trafficking have been found to suffer from other anxiety and mood disorders including, but not limited to, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder. One study found that survivors of human trafficking reported the following anxiety and depression symptoms: nervousness or shakiness inside (91%), terror/panic spells (61%), fearfulness (85%), feeling depressed or very sad (95%), and hopelessness about the future(76%).

Individuals with a traumatic past involving physical and/or sexual abuse have also been found to be at increased risk for the development of dissociative disorders, characterized as a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, or perception.

One study conducted in Europe found that 63% of victims of trafficking have memory loss related to dissociative disorders. They can present themselves suddenly or gradually and can be either transient or chronic. Some victims may simply not be able to recall certain events while others may continue to disassociate in an effort to prepare for future threats.

Also, new evidence shows that in children that experience traumatic experiences, more than half of screened positive for depression, a third (33%) for an anxiety disorder, and a quarter (26%) for posttraumatic stress disorder. Also, 12% reported that they had tried to harm or kill themselves in the month before the interview. The remaining 15.8% reported having suicidal thoughts in the past month.

Trafficking of people has been firmly declared to be a human rights violation of international proportions. Numerous countries around the world have ratified the UN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, and have signed regional agreements pertaining to trafficking. These concords require that the victims of such heinous acts have access to psychological assistance.

To meet their international obligations, these nations will have to begin mandate and sponsor responses to individuals’ mental health needs. In this effort, the mental health community can take the lead by developing and testing formal and informal intervention strategies that help women and girls manage the aftermath of a trafficking experience.

Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto

LatinAmerican Post | Luisa Fernanda Báez

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