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Why Sex Trafficking Victims Need Mental Health Treatment


Sex trafficking is a complex, multilayered issue. Vulnerable young adolescents and teens are recruited by predators, who play on their emotions and weaknesses to eventually gain their trust and then take control.

How It All Starts

Maricela Vega, a Master’s-level counselor at Evolve Treatment Centers San Diego PHP/IOP, says that many teen girls who become trafficking victims started out talking to someone on social media. Often, they’re lonely or depressed. This “someone” often starts out being friendly and caring. And then everything heads downhill.

“When a pimp starts courting the adolescent, he does everything he can to make them feel good and boost their self-esteem,” says Vega, who provided mental health services to youth victims of sex trafficking at San Diego’s STARS program. “Often, these teens are suffering from low self-image, depression, or other mental health issues. So the teen becomes emotionally attached to this stranger. They think: ‘He’s my savior, he loves me, I’d do anything for him.’ And that ‘anything’ might mean that when the pimp asks the girl to meet in person, the girl might agree. If she’s at a really low point in her life, the girl might even run away with him.”

Teens Who Are Vulnerable

In addition to teens with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, adolescents with prior trauma (such as childhood neglect or abuse) are more vulnerable to predators. Due to their traumatic experiences, these teens have trouble setting boundaries. “It’s hard for them to determine what’s the right way to be treated, and what’s the wrong way to be treated,” explains Vega. “So they get lured in very quickly.”

But that’s not to say other teens – who didn’t suffer from trauma and have no mental health concerns  – won’t be courted by traffickers. “If they’re on social media, all teens are susceptible,” says Vega. These predators often throw out bait – in the form of online messages to thousands of adolescents at a time – and see who bites.

After the Crisis Has Passed

There are many nonprofits whose sole mission is helping teens victims of the sex trafficking industry. Because even once the teen is physically safe, a lot of work must still be done. Adolescent victims need mental health services. They need to process their traumas. Teens need to learn coping skills to deal with their clinical depression, anxiety, codependency, or another mental health issue. Their low sense of self-esteem, which could have made them vulnerable to traffickers to begin with, needs to be restored in a healthy way.

Residential Treatment for Sex Trafficking

Many times, teen victims of trafficking benefit from going to an adolescent residential treatment center (RTC). An RTC includes all of the above services under one roof.  Staff at an adolescent mental health center often utilize Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Seeking Safety, and other modes of therapy to delve deep into a teen’s underlying issues and show the adolescent how to confront them. A residential treatment center also forces the teen to detach from social media completely. This provides a healthy break from potentially toxic communication and allows him or her to focus on the number-one priority: recovery.

Once the teen completes an RTC program, or can live at home safely and is getting ready to go back to school, a partial hospitalization program (PHP) or intensive outpatient program (IOP) would be the next step. A PHP or IOP will help your teen transition gradually to life out of treatment, while still showing her how to put her newly learned coping skills – such as boundary setting, behavioral activation, to practice.

If you suspect your teen might be a victim of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at  1-888-373-7888 (TTY: 711) or Text 233733 (BeFree).

At the same time, keep in mind that many victims don’t know they’re victims. Other times, they don’t want to identify as one. This is why many teens will not reach out for help or cooperate with someone who is trying to assist them. In San Diego, the District Attorney’s office has come out with a new campaign to spread more awareness about this issue, called “The Ugly Truth”. Visit to learn more about how you can help victims of sex trafficking.

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