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Psychological Effects of Human Trafficking: Depression, Anxiety, & Substance Use [Part 1]

Part one in a three-part series written by CCAHT therapist, Amy Canfield.

Instinctively, we understand that sex trafficking has negative effects on its victims.

Our personal experience and empathy help us care for others who’ve been through traumatic events and give us a desire to support them. But what we may not know is exactly how human trafficking impacts its victims and what type of support they need.

The experience of human trafficking can cause many short and long-term adverse psychological effects. These effects may lead to maladaptive behaviors, mental health concerns, and substance use. Knowing what the specific effects are and how they impact a victim is an important part of understanding the complexity of this crime and providing appropriate support.

How does it happen?

The definition and act of sex trafficking have in them the recipe for creating and maintaining adverse psychological effects on victims. Trafficking is essentially taking control of another person and using them for one’s own gain through force, fraud, or coercion. Traffickers often seek vulnerable individuals, such as the displaced or homeless, runaways, those with little social support or few resources, and individuals with psychological and emotional vulnerability. Traffickers believe they have the best chance of controlling and manipulating others by capitalizing on any existing vulnerabilities, while simultaneously creating dependence and a distorted sense of reality. The reality that the trafficker shapes through fraud, manipulation, and force leaves victims questioning their own ideas about what is true, who they can trust, and what their alternative options are.

The experience of being trafficked may induce or exacerbate mental health concerns and symptoms. While those with pre-existing mental health concerns or disabilities are also extremely vulnerable to the manipulation and exploitation of trafficking.

Possible psychological effects of human trafficking include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders, including panic disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Substance use and disorders
  • Shame and guilt
  • Alienation and isolation from social supports
  • Suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide)
  • Identity disturbance/confusion

The risk of developing a mental health disorder, as a victim of trafficking, may be influenced by multiple factors:

  • Past experience of trauma/abuse
  • Duration of exploitation
  • Violence
  • Restrictions on movement while being trafficked
  • Greater number of unmet needs
  • Lower levels of support following trafficking


Many of us are familiar with most of the psychological effects on this list, as they are commonly experienced by individuals impacted by other forms of trauma or negative life events. However, understanding how these diagnoses and symptoms impact someone’s ability to cope and survive while being trafficked or afterward may be helpful in working with and relating to victims of trafficking.

Depression, Anxiety and PTSD:

Depression—When a person is depressed, they may experience symptoms that make it difficult to realistically evaluate and change their circumstances. They may have trouble thinking clearly and making decisions, properly caring for themselves, or feeling worthy or motivated to change.

Anxiety—When a person has an anxiety disorder, they may experience general or specific fears and worries. The person may become preoccupied with anxious thoughts, making it difficult to function normally, as they attempt to navigate through their fears and worries. They may have trouble making decisions and concentrating, changing their routines, or trusting new people and situations.

PTSD—When a person suffers from PTSD, they may avoid people, places, and things, in an attempt to avoid any triggers/reminders of the traumatic event/s. They may experience intrusive thoughts, images, and flashbacks, which impact their ability to cope in the present. They may also experience mood changes and trouble concentrating.

When someone is trying to help a victim of human trafficking, it may be frustrating because it might appear that the person is not receptive to help or committed to making any changes. It is important to be aware of the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD and how they may impact a person’s ability to cope, think, plan, and commit. In addition, traffickers use these symptoms to maintain control over their victims, taking advantage of the fact that victims may be struggling to evaluate reality and make informed decisions. Awareness of symptoms, patience and understanding, and referrals to appropriate professional services are essential.

Substance Use Disorders:

Substance Use Disorders—When a person uses substances to self-medicate or is addicted to one or more substances, they may spend a large amount of time obtaining, using, and recovering from the substance. This leaves little time to evaluate their circumstances or make plans to change. While under the influence or going through withdrawals, it can be challenging to think clearly and make healthy decisions. This may lead to self-destructive behavior. In addition, traffickers use substances to control victims, either by introducing them to substances or by controlling access to substances, allowing them to control, manipulate and exploit the victim.

When attempting to help a victim of human trafficking, it is important to recognize that substance use is a common consequence which complicates a victim’s ability to get out of the life and make changes. Like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, the person may seem unreceptive to help and uncommitted to changes, due to the grasp the addiction has on the person. Most people need professional treatment for their addiction, so it is imperative victims with substance use issues are linked to services that can provide appropriate help for addiction.

These four mental health diagnoses and the corresponding symptoms may be typical reactions to stress and trauma. The symptoms associated with these conditions can be serious, persistent, and challenging to manage and live with. It is crucial that individuals with these symptoms are provided with supportive resources and services to help educate about and address their symptoms and learn how to cope and manage them so that they may lead happy, healthy lives.

In the next segment, we will discuss four more psychological effects of human trafficking. Read part two here.