In order to meet the mental health needs of survivors of human trafficking successfully, it is important to first ensure basic safety and service needs. Establishing physical and psychological safety is a prerequisite in working with trafficking victims with trauma histories. This requires working collaboratively with those involved with the case to assess current client safety needs and planning. Ensuring that task force members involved in a case span across systems of care can help in addressing multiple needs.
In addition to assessing a client’s physical and mental health, it is important that providers working with victims have access to a range of trauma-specific interventions, including well-trained clinicians who are willing and culturally competent to work with victims. There are many treatment approaches for poly-victimization, particularly for adolescents, including the use of educational support groups to address skills development, interpersonal connections, and competence and resiliency building.
Lahor Mental Health Outreach is a nonprofit, mental health & behavior center in Houston, Texas Its peer counseling model avoids a traditional approach to trauma treatment that positions service providers as clinically neutral authority figures. Rather, LMHO provides client-centered supportive partnerships that address the social, political, and economic contexts of client difficulties. LMHO combines peer counseling with a host of other services, including case management, psychosocial & diagnostic assessments, and crisis intervention.
It is also important to consider the client’s cultural background and how that plays a role in resiliency and the experience of receiving mental health support, particularly in the case of foreign national victims. Western-centered psychology practice may not emphasize culture and community relationships that can support survivor reintegration and promote healthy relationships.
An alternative to clinical mental health support is a peer-support model. Peer-to-peer counseling and mentoring from survivors who are now serving in a victim services capacity make great support sources for victims. Victims are often more comfortable with peers who understand and experienced similar pain and exploitation in a nonjudgmental, empathetic way. It is also a way to help survivors build a new identity and remove feelings of isolation.
Address trauma bonding. Some traffickers have a complex emotional relationship with their victims, similar to a relationship where domestic violence is present. In this “relationship,” the trafficker wields complete control and induces commercial sex acts or forced labor in order to make money. Control and obedience are maintained through a combination of emotional manipulation, feigned affection, cultural beliefs about debt, and physical and emotional abuse. Victims often develop traumatic bonding and identification with their trafficker. Trauma bonding with an abuser is a survival strategy for victims of abuse and intimidation. For example, a victim who was abducted and raped may, years later, describe the captor as a “great person” with whom he/she formed an emotional bond, thus showing characteristics of a victim suffering from a trauma bond. Trauma bonding also does not have to be romantic in nature; it is essentially a false sense of relationship to another. Ensuring that mental health professionals trained in trauma bonding are available within your victim services response can be critical.
Though there are many challenges to meeting the mental health needs of trafficking victims, an effort to create a comprehensive approach across multiple systems of care offers the promise of responding to victims where they most need it. Building long-term trusting relationships, ensuring flexible models of treatment, and peer-to-peer support will empower and build self-esteem in your clients.