Uncharted Waters: Developing Mental Health Services for Survivors of Domestic Human Sex Trafficking

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In recent years, heightened attention has been paid to commercial sexual exploitation, including domestic human sex trafficking (HST), with mental health concerns named the most dominant health concern among survivors. Human sex trafficking is associated with significant and long-term mental health consequences. Research to date has emphasized ways to identify survivors in health care settings. Once identified, however, few specialized services are available to help survivors exit and recover. The current services infrastructure for HST has been compared to the disjointed social response to intimate partner violence before the women’s movement helped develop a system of battered women’s shelters. Although research has highlighted the need for a multidisciplinary and interagency response to HST, including mental health care, best practices have not yet been formulated. Furthermore, available services are fragmented across sectors. With psychology and psychiatry taking tentative steps to develop services for HST survivors, this article identifies six principles to help avoid a fragmented and potentially retraumatizing clinical and systemic response. The overarching goal is to design services that are flexible, accessible, trauma informed, survivor driven, responsive to stages of change, multidisciplinary, and enduring, especially given the centrality of healthy attachments and community in trauma recovery. Principles are derived from the limited available research on HST services and from examples of efficacious interventions for patient groups with similar characteristics. The discussion is also informed by composite clinical vignettes from a specialized clinic for adult survivors of HST, housed in a major teaching hospital. Finally, practice recommendations and strategies for building interdisciplinary collaborations are discussed.

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