OPINION: Mental health support for survivors of human trafficking should be prioritised

There are several reasons for the lack of mental health care for survivors


Social stigma has always proved to be an obstacle for the survivors of human trafficking in their process towards recovery, rehabilitation, and social integration. Ironically, the survivors continue to be discriminated against by society, while the offenders go scot-free. 

The traumatic experiences endured by survivors of trafficking can have long-lasting effects on their mental well-being, often manifesting in a range of psychological disorders and emotional distress. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among trafficking survivors are alarmingly high, with studies indicating that signs of persistent depressive disorder were reported by 87.3 per cent of them.  The constant fear, violence, and exploitation they have endured can lead to symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and intense anxiety, making it difficult for survivors to regain a sense of safety and security in their lives. 

There are several reasons for the lack of mental health care, one of them being that the survivors often do not know that such support exists or that they need it. This lack of information perpetuates their isolation and hinders their ability to heal.  Police stations, medical facilities, and magistrate courts, where survivors are taken after the rescue, have a dearth of infrastructure for mental health counselling. The absence of counselling or mental health professionals’ support during the rehabilitation process exacerbates their trauma.

Moreover, the insensitivity of the police, local authorities, community and medical doctors towards the mental health needs of survivors encumbers them, leaving them feeling frustrated and abandoned on their path towards recovery. It is also common for doctors and hospital staff at the community primary healthcare institutions to prescribe anxiety pills, instead of providing counselling and alternative therapy. These pills have adverse effects on the health of the survivors, inducing sleep and rendering them unable to hold jobs or pursue their education. 

The stigma surrounding mental health issues is especially prevalent in rural communities and can prevent survivors from seeking help, fearing judgment or disbelief from others. According to a study conducted by a survivor collective in West Bengal, 67 per cent of survivors faced humiliation from neighbours, friends, and community members.   

Inclusion of access to mental health care in the government policies and schemes, and having a clear definition of rehabilitation is critical to address the issue at hand. Prioritization of community-based rehabilitation would also enable the survivors to access mental health support, including counselling and therapy, at the community level. 

Additionally, researching the prevalence of mental health issues in the community will help the authorities to understand the specific needs and challenges faced by survivors. This information can also be used to develop targeted programs and services that promote mental well-being and support survivors in their journey towards reintegration. 

As the police and other government officials are the first responders to the rescued survivors, it is imperative to sensitize and train them on immediate mental trauma care and survivor needs. Educating duty bearers can help develop empathy and understanding of the pain, trauma and grief that the survivors experience. Additionally, awareness drives and sensitisation meetings with family and community members on stigma and survivors’ needs should be strongly encouraged to minimise knowledge gaps and misconceptions. 

A multi-faceted and multi-layered approach that combines access to mental health professionals, research, and community involvement is vital in creating a comprehensive and inclusive mental health care system.

The authors are survivor leaders from the Indian Leadership Forum Against Trafficking (ILFAT)

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