Mental health, violence and psychological coercion among female and male trafficking survivors in the greater Mekong sub-region: a cross-sectional study

Human trafficking is a pervasive global crime with important public health implications that entail fundamental human rights violations in the form of severe exploitation, violence and coercion. Sex-specific associations between types of violence or coercion and mental illness in survivors of trafficking have not been established.

We conducted a cross-sectional study with 1015 female and male survivors of trafficking (adults, adolescents and children) who received post-trafficking assistance services in Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam and had been exploited in various labor sectors. We assessed anxiety and depression with the Hopkins Symptoms Checklist (HSCL-25) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms with the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire (HTQ), and used validated questions from the World Health Organization International Study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence to measure physical and sexual violence. Sex-specific modified Poisson regression models were estimated to obtain prevalence ratios (PRs) and their 95% confidence intervals (CI) for the association between violence (sexual, physical or both), coercion, and mental health conditions (anxiety, depression and PTSD).

Adjusted models indicated that for females, experiencing both physical and sexual violence, compared to not being exposed to violence, was a strong predictor of symptoms of anxiety (PR = 2.08; 95% CI: 1.64-2.64), PTSD (PR = 1.55; 95% CI: 1.37-1.74), and depression (PR = 1.57; 95% CI: 1.33-1.85). Among males, experiencing physical violence with additional threats made with weapons, compared to not being exposed to violence, was associated with PTSD (PR = 1.59; 95% CI: 1.05-2.42) after adjustment. Coercion during the trafficking experience was strongly associated with anxiety, depression, and PTSD in both females and males. For females in particular, exposure to both personal and family threats was associated with a 96% elevated prevalence of PTSD (PR = 1.96; 95% CI: 1.32-2.91) and more than doubling of the prevalence of anxiety (PR = 2.11; 95% CI: 1.57-2.83).

The experiences of violence and coercion in female and male trafficking survivors differed and were associated with an elevated prevalence of anxiety, depression, and PTSD in both females and males. Mental health services must be an integral part of service provision, recovery and re-integration for trafficked females and males.