Stigma: “A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person, i.e. the stigma of having gone to prison will always be with me”.

This past week we presented at the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation’s World Congress on the psychology of captivity, and attended an Emotional Body Armor Course with the Virginia State Police. We also went to Baltimore and toured a center who is setting up a rescue for people who are being trafficked. There was one common theme in everything we attended, and that is that people fail to get help or to overcome the burdens they carry because of stigma.

As a soldier and government contractor, I have traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan nine times, and can add tours in Korea and other parts of the world to the same resume. The things you see on those trips and the burdens you carry because of the conflict you feel in your heart can wreak havoc on you. The one thing that prevents a soldier from seeking help is stigma and the fear of what others will think of you. It doesn’t help to live in a hyper judgmental society that loves to place titles on people and judge them as a stereotype. This same stigma keeps Police Officers, Firefighters, and other First Responders from seeking help. It is simply much easier to put on a happy face around your peers and pretend like nothing is wrong while the inner turmoil destroys you from the inside out. Instead of seeking help, it is simply easier to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, and enable others around you while they enable each other’s self-destructive behavior. There are some really great programs for veterans and first responders to seek help, but stigma is still a huge problem.

Imagine the stigma of coming out of being trafficked for five years. The stigma for people who are working to save lives is bad enough, but what about the person who has been forced to live a life in captivity. Victims of human trafficking endure rapes, physical abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and malnourishment. It is likely that a sex trafficking victim will have been forced to have sex with well over a thousand people in a year. It is also likely they will have endured over a hundred beatings and been threatened with death. Every incident they endure adds up and PTSD rapidly becomes complex PTSD. What happens when the victim escapes or is rescued? How can they even begin to reclaim thier life?

Imagine going to work at your first job. Can you relate to anyone? What is it like to deal with people your own age after everything you have been through? What about finishing school? Our hyper judgmental society loves to label people with names like prostitute, hooker, slut, whore, ho, or worse. The stigma of a survivor’s past will always haunt them as they try to regain their life and heal from their wounds. The issue we face is helping the survivors heal and helping them thrive. Sadly it is much easier for a sex trafficking victim to return to trafficking where they know and understand the rules than for them to heal and adjust to society. It is easier to be around your peers who will enable your self-destructive behavior. It is easier to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol than to face the stigma society assigns you. There are a lot of programs to help survivors of human trafficking, however there are not enough.

Stigma is one of our biggest enemies of the rescuer and the rescued. Fear of our own society and the inability for survivors to connect with those around them prevents healing. We will not succeed in helping any survivor in any category until we defeat stigma. We cannot help anyone come home until we change the way we talk about others, label others, and feel about those around us.

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