Primary Sources: Exploring What Works in Treating the Mental Health of Trafficking Victims

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Photograph of a young man resting his head on his hand.

Evidence-Based Mental Health Treatment for Victims of Human Trafficking,” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. April 2010.

What it's about: This issue brief examines the mental health needs of human trafficking victims, including young victims of sex trafficking, and reviews the literature on the most effective treatment options.

Why read it: Very little research has been done on effective mental health treatments specifically for victims of trafficking. To give programs something to work with while that evidence base is being built, this brief explores some of the common mental health conditions experienced by victims and the interventions that have proven effective in treating them in other, similar populations.   

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: Young victims of sex trafficking most commonly suffer from conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, impulse control issues, and antisocial personality traits, among other conditions. In the absence of research on treatment for sex trafficking victims specifically, the authors looked at therapeutic options for child sexual abuse survivors, who often have the same mental health needs. They found that cognitive-behavioral therapies, which focus on rooting out and neutralizing destructive thoughts, seem to provide the best outcomes. Research suggests, however, that young people do not benefit from long-term therapy, so the authors caution that interventions must be long enough to address all the symptoms, but not so long that they are no longer effective.   

Additional reference: In 2008, ASPE released "Treating the Hidden Wounds: Trauma Treatment and Mental Health Recovery for Victims of Human Trafficking," which reviews the impact of trauma and the trauma-informed and specific services most victims need.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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