How This Organization is Helping Human Trafficking Survivors Heal Their Mental Health and Recover from Trauma + Tips from a Front-Line Psychologist on How to Manage Secondary Trauma & Compassion Fatigue

One of the major issues in our world today is modern slavery. Yes, you read that right: slavery exists in the 21st century. In this week’s blog and podcast, I speak with Dr. Michelle Lee from the International Justice Mission (IJM), a global non-profit of investigators, lawyers, social workers, healthcare professionals and advocates fighting for the freedom and protection of the most vulnerable. We discuss what slavery looks like in our world today, what it means to work with victims of violence and abuse, healing trauma on an individual and a communal level, the power of being able to tell your own story, dealing with secondary trauma and compassion fatigue as an advocate for freedom and justice, and what you can do to help. 

Modern slavery is incredibly pervasive. It is estimated that there are over 40 million slaves in our world today, many of whom come from the vulnerable communities. As an industry, human trafficking is said to generate around $150 billion annually. This industry goes beyond just bad working conditions. People trapped in slavery face physical, verbal and sexual abuse daily, and cannot leave to find other work or protect their families. IJM's cases include enslaved people who report being beaten, gang-raped, locked in tiny rooms, starved and even forced to witness murder.

This is why the work IJM does is incredibly vital, especially during the current pandemic. Now more than ever there is an urgent need to protect those who are vulnerable in their communities and in their own homes. The current COVID-19 epidemic has trapped many children and adults with their abusers, especially in the Philippines; cybersex trafficking is a very real danger for many young children there due to widespread internet access and English language skills. IJM’s work in this part of the world is specifically focused on trying to help these at-risk children who are stuck at home due to COVID-19, while keeping them safe from other harms.

Their goal is to make sure that individuals can live safely and sustainably in their own communities, which is why they focus on working with local officials, organizations and advocates to rescue and restore victims, bring criminals to justice and strengthen local justice systems:

  1. IJM works with local officials and investigators to rescue victims. Once rescued, IJM’s aftercare teams work alongside these survivors on their journey of restoration. They offer both immediate crisis care and long-term support, which is a multilayered process that involves local partners and officials. IJM’s goal is to build the capacity of local systems to make changes and justice more sustainable.
  2. IJM’s teams of lawyers also take the cases through the legal system, so that these people can no longer commit these terrible crimes. Their lawyers and partners continue to fight in courtrooms until the slave owners are put behind bars.
  3. In terms of strengthening justice systems, IJM focuses on educating, assisting and building up local systems; they walk alongside, not take over, these systems. Yes, it takes time to build trust, but this trust helps establish a common goal: the protection of the most vulnerable in the community. IJM understands that healing is only sustainable if they as an organization work with and trains local systems and partners to form an ecosystem where survivors are protected and empowered to form roots of safety and healing in their own communities.

When it comes to healing and restoration, IJM focuses on trauma-informed care, which is a critical when interacting with survivors. This type of care recognizes that trauma has a complex and very nuanced effect on everyone, which they measure using their validated assessment of survivor outcomes tool. They use this to tailor their therapy and training to each individual’s unique needs and experiences. Their work centers around 6 main areas of wellbeing and healing:

  1. Safety: are they free from threat or victimization?
  2. Legal protection: do they know their rights and local laws?
  3. Mental wellbeing: what are their coping skills and level of risk?
  4. Economic empowerment and education: do they have a safe source to meet their needs?
  5. Social support: do they have supportive relationships in their community?
  6. Physical health: what are their physical needs and can they meet these needs?

One of the most important aspects of the healing process is community support. It acts as a buffer and means of protection, encouraging survivor leaders to form local survivor groups that create spaces of support and safety, advocate for the rights of their fellow community members and raise awareness in their communities and local governments. These survivor leaders also undergo training with IJM to better help their communities and fight for change. This is an incredible survivor-informed approach to healing and restoration!

Narrative therapy, or teaching someone to tell their own story, is also an incredibly important part of the restoration process. It does take time, but is very effective. Narrative therapy helps the person who experienced the trauma to better understand the moments in their life that have shaped who they are, and improves their ability to not stay stuck in those moments. Yes, “this …” happened to them, but it is not their whole narrative—they can choose how they will allow it to impact their life story. This helps them not stay locked in one narrative, e.g. “I am a victim” or “I can never be a good person”. They realize that they can shift this narrative by asking themselves “are there ways I can turn this around?”. This way of approaching trauma is incredibly empowering, giving individuals a level of autonomy and control over their own lives, and is especially helpful when faced with barriers to healing, which include trauma-bonding and distrust.

Indeed, when people learn how to tell their own story, their lives change in ways they never imagined. When you feel that you can control your own mind and life, you can live in peace and find healing regardless of your past, present or future, which we observed this in my recent clinical trials. Autonomy and independence is predictive of healing; while people who feel like everything is out of their control tend to be more susceptible to the ups and downs of life and have poorer mental and physical health outcomes. 

One of the great things about IJM is that they focus both on ending slavery and supporting their staff and teams while they do so. They have put in place policies and procedures that help maintain the mental and physical wellbeing of every person in their organization, including mindfulness breaks, counseling, peer support programs, training and team events. Humanitarian work can be incredibly traumatic, which is why mindfulness is so important. You need to take time to be reflective, slow down and stay centered, and give yourself permission to rest, or you may experience secondary trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue. The only way this kind of work is sustainable is if there is a balance, and the recognition that you can’t be the one to fix everything or do the work on your own. 

For more on modern slavery, trauma and mental health, listen to my podcast with Michelle (episode #181), and see the IJM website. To support the amazing work that IJM is doing around the world, see Ways to Give.  

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Podcast Highlights

2:18 What is IJM? 

4:53 What modern slavery looks like

8:13 How IJM protects the most vulnerable

13:47 The hard work that comes after a victim is rescued

32:00 The power of individual’s experiences and narrative in the healing process

34:00 What are some of the most effective ways of helping someone heal?

35:55 How to tell your story

42:30 What are some of the biggest challenges to someone’s healing?

46:33 How do you deal with secondary trauma and compassion fatigue?

53:08 Just one of the many lives saved by IJM

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