In past posts we’ve discussed the many ways in which people can fall victim to trafficking and the difficulties faced by law enforcement, government agencies, and NGOs in their attempts to eradicate this global epidemic. For survivors of trafficking, however, the real work begins after they are rescued or escape from captivity. Though the extent of the emotional damage can vary depending upon the individual, the type of servitude they were forced into, and the length of time it continued, the majority will have to overcome symptoms of PTSD, as well as shame and a loss of identity. Emotional support, including cognitive therapy, is key to helping them do so.

First and foremost, therapists must be aware of the signs of trafficking so they can identify victims, as well as the complexities so they can communicate about it appropriately – even if this means providing support until the individual is ready to leave the situation. 

Assuming that is the case, the therapist can employ a variety of methods, beginning with the identification of triggers (i.e. words and events) associated with the trauma. Tools to process and “deactivate” those triggers include everything from breathing exercises and eye movement desensitization to the evolving practice of dance and movement therapy. Oftentimes,  a combination of these techniques, along with extensive talk therapy, is most effective.

Part of the healing process is ensuring that survivors have the emotional and physical tools to prevent them from being revictimized and/or falling into detrimental behaviors such as addiction. Trafficking is so insidious in part because of the emotional grooming that often takes place in the early stages, with the trafficker plying the victim with gifts, compliments, and promises to take them out of an unhappy home life or provide them with a source of income. Later, threats, subtle and otherwise, of physical violence and deportation can keep the victim locked in psychological dependence upon them. Therapy can help the victim learn to discern healthy relationships from toxic ones, avoid potentially dangerous situations, and, most importantly, re-establish trust in themselves to make the right decisions.    

Finally, a strong support system is critical to helping survivors heal from the past trauma and reclaim authority over their lives. It is important to note that this support may or may not consist of family members or friends they associated with before they were trafficked. In fact, in the worst cases, usually those involving children, victims are trafficked by those closest to them and now must be placed in an entirely new living situation.  Even when relatives had no complicity in the crime, the relationship with the survivor may need to be explored and new ways of interacting established. Oftentimes family members lack understanding of trafficking – for example, the emotional grooming component – and may engage in blaming the victim. Individual and group counseling is invaluable,  both in educating them and helping survivors find their voice so they can speak authentically about their experiences when and to whom they feel comfortable, without fear of ridicule or judgment.

Given the sheer numbers and the horrifying details we hear about trafficking, it can be easy to assume it’s insurmountable and its victims irreparably damaged. Certainly, trafficking is in a class of its own; however, at its core it shares the dynamics of other crimes involving emotional and physical manipulation, and thus the same methods can be used to successfully treat it. There is every reason to hope that with love and the right guidance those who have been trafficked can move past victimization to lead self-actualized, productive, and joyful lives.

After all, they have already done the hardest part – they have survived.