The Link Between Mental Illness and Human Trafficking
The Link Between Mental Illness and Human Trafficking
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The Link Between Mental Illness and Human Trafficking

June 29, 22

Mental health continues to be a topic of discussion in the United States, and it remains an important component that can play a role in human trafficking and exploitation. Discussing the relationship between mental illness and human trafficking can help create an environment of understanding of the experiences of survivors, as well as how different mental conditions can affect one’s risk of being trafficked. 

How Mental Illness Puts Individuals at Risk of Being Trafficked

Mental illnesses affect millions of adolescents and adults worldwide. In the United States, nearly 1 in 5 adults live with a mental illness. A few of the more common mental health conditions include: 

  • Major Depression: Depression affects an estimated 264 million people worldwide and is one of the leading causes of disability. Symptoms include feelings of prolonged sadness, loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, low self-worth, difficulty sleeping, disturbed appetite and suicidal ideation. 

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Generalized anxiety disorder is typically characterized by ongoing feelings of anxiety or dread that interfere with a person’s daily life. 

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Often referred to by its acronym PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder usually develops following a traumatic event such as an accident, assault, disaster, combat situation or other form of violence. Symptoms include persistent feelings of fear or numbness and sleep problems. 

A Risk Factor for Human Trafficking

The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline Report lists mental health concerns as one of the top five risk factors for human trafficking. Traffickers seek to exploit and manipulate individuals with vulnerabilities such as mental health conditions. 

According to the British Columbia Government’s resources on human trafficking, mental illnesses may limit a person’s ability to consent and assess risk. Furthermore, individuals with mental health concerns may be more isolated than others, which can make them more susceptible to the tactics that traffickers use to make them feel safe and accepted.  

Once trust has been earned, perpetrators prey on the person’s feelings of shame and low self-esteem to trap them in a cycle of abuse. Traffickers may also use rewards and punishments to build an emotional connection with those they exploit; this is referred to as trauma bonding. 

How to Keep Yourself and Your Loved Ones Safe

Despite being common conditions, mental illnesses are often stigmatized. Start by talking openly with your loved ones about the symptoms of mental health disorders. Encourage those who may be struggling to seek help from a licensed professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist. Mental illnesses are treatable, and there is always hope.  

If you or a loved one are facing a mental health emergency, please call 911. Other resources in the United States include: 

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 1-888-628-9454 en Español 

  • Lifeline Chat: Chat online and get connected to crisis resources 

  • Crisis Text Line: Text “HELLO” to 741741 to get started 

You should also educate yourself and others on the signs of human trafficking. Some warning signs include: 

  • Physical Signs: Evidence of physical abuse, traffickers’ branding, appearance that doesn’t match their circumstances, inappropriate dress for one’s age or current weather conditions, and possession of large amounts of cash, multiple cell phones or fake IDs. 

  • Emotional Signs: Fear of authority figures, substance addiction, poor posture, lack of eye contact and a tendency to be easily startled. 

  • Behavioral Signs: Increasingly sexualized behavior, changes in word choice, criminal behavior, new possessions or cash, and sudden changes in grades, mood or hobbies. 

If you or someone you know is being exploited, please contact a human trafficking tip line or local law enforcement authorities. To further educate yourself on the signs of trafficking, we invite you to take our free Signs of Trafficking Training Course.

How Human Trafficking Affects the Mental Health of Survivors

When discussing human trafficking, it is important to include mental health as part of the conversation for two reasons: first, mental illness is a risk factor for human trafficking, and second, many survivors face psychological effects that last long after their abuse ends. 

Psychological Effects of Human Trafficking

Survivors of human trafficking often experience anxiety, depression and/or post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their trauma. They may also develop eating disorders or a dependence on drugs or alcohol. 

Other reported symptoms include: 

  • Anger

  • Numbness

  • Guilt

  • Self-harm

  • Nightmares

  • Sexual problems

Care for Survivors

Care for survivors often includes therapy and other mental health treatments, and these services should always be carried out by individuals who are trauma informed. Many survivors have found healing in art, music and equine therapy in addition to counseling and psychiatric care. Cognitive-behavior therapy has been found to be especially effective for helping young children who have been exploited.

Peer-to-peer mentoring has also been helpful for many survivors. Survivors are often able to better open up to someone who has experienced similar circumstances.

How O.U.R. Supports Survivors

The Operation Underground Railroad Aftercare Team is committed to helping survivors of human trafficking receive individualized care. We work to pair survivors with qualified mental health professionals and help pay for these services. Depending on the region of the world, therapy sessions can cost between $30 to $100, and your donations help cover these costs on behalf of survivors.

Though the road may not be easy, there is hope and healing ahead for all survivors of human trafficking.

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