By Cindy Coloma

Tina jumped as her alarm went off. Everything seemed to startle her lately. She had already been awake for hours, suffering from flashbacks that haunted her night after night. She sat up. Her neck and shoulders ached from the tension she had been carrying since she was released from jail. On good days, Jerry used to give her a neck rub before she headed out to work. Work. She shook her head as she thought about what Jerry used to call work. Selling her body night after night, giving all of her money to her boyfriend when she got home. Only now, after a few sessions with a counselor, was she able to consider the fact that Jerry wasn’t her boyfriend. He was her pimp.

Her new counselor, Sarah, has been trying to talk her into a treatment program for human-trafficking survivors. Now that it looked like Jerry would remain in jail for a while, Tina thought she might try it. Her nightmares were getting worse, and she was feeling more and more depressed. She picked up her phone and dialed Sarah’s office. For the first time in a long time, she felt hope.

Sad girls hugging

What Is Human Trafficking?

When someone uses force, fraud or coercion to make a person engage in sexual activity or forced labor, it’s defined as human trafficking. Traffickers look for victims who are vulnerable for a variety of reasons, such as economic hardship, emotional or physical susceptibility, lack of social and family support, natural disasters or environmental instability.1

What Is PTSD?

The US Department of Veterans Affairs defines posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as “a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident or sexual assault.”2

As human trafficking moves toward the forefront of our national and local news, many mental health professionals are learning that trafficking victims require specific and focused treatment for the debilitating PTSD that inevitably affects them once they’re rescued from their traffickers.4

What Are Some Symptoms of PTSD in Human-Trafficking Survivors?

Like many other people who suffer from PTSD, human-trafficking survivors may experience one or all of these symptoms:3

  • Intrusive memories
  • Flashbacks and nightmares
  • Physiological reactions to things that remind the victim of the trauma
  • Detachment and loss of trust
  • Pessimistic thinking and/or behavior
  • Memory loss
  • Anger, guilt or shame
  • Hypervigilance
  • Insomnia
  • Depersonalization (feeling detached from reality)
  • Reckless or self-destructive behavior
  • Problems with concentration
  • Depression

Barriers to Treatment for Human-Trafficking Survivors

Several obstacles can keep human-trafficking survivors from getting the help they need to heal from their trauma, including:

  • Time: According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, mental health providers report that one of the biggest barriers to helping human-trafficking survivors is difficulty establishing trust.4 It takes time to establish trust with a counselor or other provider. Many of the services available to victims only provide short stays or limited visits, and this does not allow providers the time or flexibility needed to establish a trusting relationship.
  • Training: Traditional therapeutic services are often not designed to respond to the unique needs of human-trafficking survivors. It’s important for a mental health provider to understand the nuances associated with caring for someone who’s been affected by human trafficking. Training in trauma-informed and trauma-specific services, as well as long-term visions for recovery, are recommended to successfully treat these individuals.4
  • Access to care: Many human-trafficking survivors don’t have affordable and timely access to mental health care.4 Long waiting lists for appointments and a system that’s not designed to seamlessly serve this specific population can make it difficult to intervene and assist.
  • Stigma: The stigma associated with mental illness can be a tough barrier to overcome. For most victims, the shame of what has happened and issues of confidentiality can create fear and reluctance to seek treatment.4

Valuable Resources Available in Michigan

Human trafficking is a $2 billion global industry.5 As progress is made in the fight against human trafficking, new resources are becoming available. In Michigan, a grant funded by the US Department of Justice is providing valuable funding for the treatment and care of survivors of human trafficking. The Victim of Crime Act (VOCA) includes three- to five-year grants — with amounts ranging from $50,000 to $1 million — and is available to public or nonprofit organizations (including faith-based organizations and American Indian tribes) that provide direct services to victims of crime.6

How Can Advocates Help Survivors Heal?

When seeking help for human-trafficking survivors who are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it’s important for them to seek support in an environment that feels safe.

Skywood Recovery is a residential treatment facility in Michigan that partners with patients in a confidential, healing environment. We use treatments like psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy alongside supportive counseling, medication management, exercise and body movement to help survivors develop a balanced view of their trauma and rebuild their lives.


1What is Human Trafficking?” Homeland Security, Accessed March 3, 2018.

2What is PTSD?” US Department of Veterans Affairs, Accessed March 3, 2018.

3Symptoms of PTSD.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Accessed March 4, 2018.

4 Clawson, Heather PhD, et al. “Treating the Hidden Wounds: Trauma Treatment and Mental Health Recovery for Victims of Human Trafficking.” US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Accessed March 4, 2018.

5 Parker, Paulette. “Task Force Helps Michigan Human Trafficking Victims Rebuild.” Michigan Radio, Accessed March 4, 2018.

6MDHHS Announces $15 Million in Federal Grants to Help Crime Victims.”, Accessed March 4, 2015.