Sex Trafficking and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

As I have spoken of in earlier posts, the tragic lives that women and young girls face today is not okay.  I use the words, “not okay,” but “uncalled for,” “outrageous,” and “shocking” would fit the bill as well.  Taking a look at the emotional trauma, not just physical, will be a great step into understanding more, educating ourselves, and making a change with the wisdom that we have.  My focus today will be on mental health treatments for victims of human trafficking, especially in regards to post-traumatic stress.

Many studies have discovered serious and often difficult mental health needs when it comes to victims of human sex trafficking.  Post-traumatic stress disorder has been most commonly found, and a wide variety of symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder that were severe were noted in the lives of the victims.  The victims range from experiencing or witnessing serious injury, threat to themselves or others, intense fear, helplessness, and even horror.  Preexisting conditions also play a part in the resilience or outcome of the victim, but overall the exposure to trauma is the most important feature when it comes to developing countries.  Post-traumatic most often will occur within the first month of exposure to the traumatic event, although that is not always the case.  Delayed presentations of post-traumatic stress can occur up to years later.  Even though PTSD occurs within both adults and children, women are more likely to be vulnerable to the disorder and take a longer time to recover.

Within trafficked women, the top five post-traumatic stress disorder associated symptoms were: recurrent thoughts/memories of terrifying events, feeling as though the event is happening again, recurrent nightmares, feeling detached/withdrawn, and unable to feel emotion.  These survivors of devastating traumatic experiences have also been found to suffer from other anxiety and mood disorders and also at an increased risk for development of dissociative disorders.

The most important aspect of post-traumatic stress disorder and the victims of human sex trafficking is that they receive the proper trauma related services in order for them to receive the help that they need.  The most common mental health therapy based upon post-traumatic stress disorder, are behavioral (focuses on increasing desired behaviors), cognitive (works to change behavior and feelings), and psychodynamic (explains behavior and personality).  The top five evidence-based therapeutic treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder are the following:

Cognitive Therapy: a type of psychotherapy in which negative patterns of thought about the self and the world are challenged in order to alter unwanted behavior patterns or treat mood disorders such as depression.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: a type of psychotherapeutic treatment that helps patients to understand the thoughts and feelings that influence behaviors.

Exposure Therapy: a form of behavior therapy in which a survivor confronts feelings or phobias or anxieties about a traumatic event and relives it in the therapy situation.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: a psychotherapy that emphasizes disturbing memories as the cause of psychopathology and alleviates the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stress Inoculation Training: a form of cognitive behavior modification that involves an educational, rehearsal, and application phase.

Above are just a few of the steps and options of therapy that victims of trafficking can pursue.  The problem that remains is getting aid to victims in developing countries filled with poverty.  The consequences of not receiving mental health care for trauma are too severe and destructive.

I encourage you to check out the Polaris Project, which informs, and does outreach work within the United States, as well as internationally.



Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (2003, September). Medical examination and treatment for victims of sexual assault: Evidence-based clinical practice and provider training (Report to Congress: AHRQ Publication No. 03-R210). Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychiatric Association. (2005, January). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

American Psychological Association. (2008). Psychology matters: Glossary. Retrieved from

Family Violence Prevention Fund. (2005). Turning pain into power: Trafficking survivors’ perspectives on early intervention strategies. San Francisco, CA: Author.

International Organization for Migration. (2006). Breaking the cycle of vulnerability: Responding to the heath needs of trafficked women in east and southern Africa. Pretoria, South Africa: Author.

International Society for the Study of Dissociation. (2004). Guidelines for the evaluation and treatment of dissociative symptoms in children and adolescents. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 5(3), 119–150.

Mayo Clinic. (2007, March 1). Mental health: Dissociative disorders, treatment and drugs.Retrieved from

National Institute for Clinical Excellence. (2004, December) Depression: Management of depression in primary and secondary care (Clinical Guideline 23). London: Author.

Office for Victims of Crime. (1998, August). New directions from the field: Victims’ rights and services for the 21st century, mental health community (NCJ No. 172819). OVC Bulletin. Washington, DC: Author.

Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services. (2008, December 2). Trauma. Retrieved from