Category: Trauma


Domestic Sex Trafficking: Hidden in Plain Sight

00Adverse Childhood Experiences, Child Development, Conformity, Emotional Abuse, Featured news, Sex, Trauma March, 20

Source: geralt at Pixabay, Creative Commons

When she was a young girl, Danielle (name changed) was recruited into domestic sex trafficking from her long-term foster home. She was only able to leave this life once her mother regained custody of her.

Sex trafficking, a term used to describe the phenomenon of individuals performing commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, is an epidemic. It affects about 25 million people globally. The US-based National Human Trafficking Hotline received 6,244 calls of domestic sex trafficking cases in 2017. Because of the difficulty in obtaining precise information, it is likely that the number affected is higher.

A common misconception about sex trafficking is that it is fundamentally a trans-border phenomenon—that the victim must have been moved from one country to another for the event to be considered trafficking. This is not the case. While both domestic and international sex trafficking share the feature of forcibly relocating an individual so that the person might perform commercial sex, domestic sex trafficking occurs within the borders of the victim’s country, and sometimes within their own community.

Victims of sex trafficking are controlled by the trafficker. Victims do not choose their clients, or the locations where they work, nor do they keep the money that they receive from clients. They are monitored by the trafficker and cannot leave; their life is at risk if they try to escape. They work in prostitution, pornography, strip clubs, escort services, brothels, massage parlors, and over the internet. While there are people who work in these services by choice, and control their work and earnings, there are many who have been coerced into it and are controlled by a trafficker.

There are many ways sex traffickers lure victims into the sex trade. In many cases, sex traffickers are expert manipulators who prey on a person’s emotional or financial vulnerabilities and offer exactly what the individual needs or desires, such as love and care, lavish items, shelter, money, or a job, with the hopes of later exploiting them. The victim is initially oblivious to the trafficker’s, or their proxy’s, real identity and intentions. The relationship begins as positive but becomes abusive, with the person being forced into the sex trade, and forced to stay in it, to work for the trafficker.

Some populations are particularly vulnerable. One of the top risk factors in becoming a victim of sex trafficking is having experienced childhood trauma. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, Megan Lundstrom, CEO of Free Our Girls (a US-serving anti-trafficking organization) and a survivor of sex trafficking herself, reports the findings from her 2017 project:

“What we found is what we’re calling ‘The Perfect Storm.’ Upwards of 90 percent of the women that we interviewed for that project had experienced some form of child abuse, primarily some form of childhood sexual abuse. When you have that high of a correlation that most women in the commercial sex trade experienced some kind of childhood sexual abuse, clearly there’s something going on there.”

Lundstrom continues by paraphrasing one of the young ladies in her study: “I almost feel like I had a sign written on my forehead that said, ‘I’m damaged goods, please exploit me,’ in that traffickers know how to single in on those vulnerabilities.”

This is also true for Ana (name changed), whose trafficker was the owner of a tattoo shop. She recalls: “He asked me a bunch of questions, clearly testing my victim potential before-hand, all under the guise of a tattoo artist apprentice. I took the bait. I had childhood trauma, so I had ‘bait’ practically written across my forehead.”

In terms of recruitment locations, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reports that 15 percent of US sex trafficking recruitment occurs at homeless and domestic violence shelters. A victim of domestic sex trafficking, Jessica, recounts her experience that relates to this finding. She had been abused by her parents as a child, and found herself homeless after being thrown out of the house at age 14. She describes the circumstances of her victimization: “One day I was at a soup kitchen having coffee and stale muffins for breakfast when I was approached by an older guy, probably late 20s. He asked me to have a real cup of coffee with him and I agreed…mostly because it was nice to have someone speak to me like I was a human being.”

She describes her trafficker using the most common recruitment tactic: posing as a romantic partner (otherwise known as a Romeo Pimp), and convincing her that he would love and take care of her: “When he asked me to be his girlfriend, I felt like the luckiest girl alive. God, I was so dumb.”

Jessica goes on to say that her lack of interpersonal supports, such as friends and family, made it more difficult to leave the life of a trafficked person.

Exposure to adverse childhood experiences has long-term consequences, and impacts potential future victimization. Lundstrom explains why this is:

“When you have been assaulted at a young age, you learn how to shut off mentally, you know how to dissociate, you know how to protect yourself but you also struggle with feelings of ‘my body is not my own, I’m not important, this is maybe the only way people care about me’. So when you have that package, that perfect storm of vulnerability starting at a very young age, traffickers go after that.”

The status quo will continue until we recognize that sex trafficking happens in our communities. We can properly identify, and thus intervene in or prevent such cases, by educating our families and friends, as well as the community. Teachers, the hotel industry, healthcare providers (who can also incorporate trauma-informed care), police, airport workers, and child-welfare workers can be further educated on how to recognize these red flags while dispelling unhealthy myths.

— Riana Fisher, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report. Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report. Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Healing Trauma with the Help of Tattoo Art

00Career, Depression, Embarrassment, Featured news, Resilience, Self-Harm, Trauma November, 19

Source: Nickola Pandelides, used with permission

“I think I’ve always struggled with my mental health. Even as a little girl I can remember being uncontrollably sad and stand-offish from people… I can remember feeling such sadness and hatred towards myself that I felt like I just needed to let it all out.”

When university student Krista (name changed) was young, she suffered from debilitating anxiety attacks and feelings of self-hate, which led her to begin self-harming at the age of 12. Self-harm can take on many forms such as cutting, burning, scratching, or other means of self-injury.

Artist and mental health advocate Nickola Pandelides has been a tattoo artist for three years at Koukla Ink, a tattoo shop that she owns. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, Nickola describes noticing that people with personal difficulties were increasingly coming to her for help and she wanted to do something about it:

“So many clients were coming to me for scar cover-up tattoos. I realized that there was a need for it, that there needed to be a safer space for people to go to open up about these things…that’s when I started Project New Moon.”

Project New Moon is a non-profit tattoo service for people who are left with scars from self-harm. Nickola has received an overwhelmingly positive response to the project from people all over the world, showing that there is a widespread desire for such services. Nickola has been running this project out of pocket since May 2018.

“There have been over 200 responses, and a huge wait list that I can’t get to all on my own, so we definitely need help, and we’re trying to start funding through GoFundMe.”

Unfortunately, there is still stigma surrounding self-harm. In particular, people perceive these visible scars from self-harm negatively, often judging harshly and treating these survivors poorly. One of Nickola’s clients, Emily, has a story similar to that of Krista; she also struggled with self-harm, and eventually decided to get a cover-up tattoo. In an interview, Emily explains:

“The stigma around self-harm scars is huge. A lot of people see people in our situation and think they’re just looking for attention, which is a huge problem because then people don’t get the help they need… Everyone expresses their pain differently.”

The reasons that people choose to self-harm are complex, and can be difficult to understand. However, self-harming behaviour is generally thought to be a way to release or distract from overwhelming emotional pain and anger, or to feel a sense of control. The act of self-harming may temporarily relieve negative feelings, but Emily describes how it ultimately led to remorse in her case:

“I decided that I wanted to get a tattoo to cover my scars because I felt a lot of shame and guilt for what I had done to myself… As I got older, I would look at my scars and I would feel so embarrassed, so I would try to cover them with bracelets, but I would always have to take them off eventually and my scars were still there.”

Emily explains that her tattoo represents growth and change; it has helped her to forgive herself and acts as a reminder that she can still turn her life into something beautiful despite all the pain she once felt.

Many of the women who come to Nickola for cover-up tattoos are mothers who have been living with their scars for years. She tells me about one mother’s story that stood out to her:

“She was a drug addict and had recently become sober. She had a lot of scars on her arm from scratching and picking, and self-harm as well. She had a little boy, and he was getting to be the age where he would be starting to ask questions. I think it really mattered to her that she would have something positive [her cover-up tattoo] to talk to him about, and that her scars would be less noticeable so she could kind-of protect him from that.”

After turning their darkest memories into something beautiful, Nickola explains that her clients’ feelings of powerlessness, shame, and embarrassment are replaced with relief, and a regained sense of control. She remarks that many of her clients feel as though getting the tattoo was an essential part of their healing journey:

“I think a part of healing is also being able to feel on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Krista also received a cover-up tattoo from a different tattoo artist. As an artist herself, Krista wanted her tattoo to be a reminder that her hands should be used to make beautiful art, instead of being used to hurt herself. She explains that even though she is still working towards recovery, getting her tattoo gave her not only a sense of control, but also the motivation to refrain from self-harm:

“I think it’s changed my life by not allowing me to cut there anymore. I don’t want to ruin the tattoo so it’s even more incentive to take better care of myself.”

-Emma Bennett, Contributing Writer , The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Death Gives a Wake-Up Call

00Bystander Effect, Featured news, Gratitude, Grief, Resilience, Trauma October, 19

Source: Ilya Haykinson at Flickr, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

On a quiet summer evening a few years back, while taking a walk in Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, I witnessed an event that would change the course of several peoples’ lives. As I relaxed under a tree in the park, watching families enjoy themselves, I heard a loud noise and saw a large branch from another tree fall onto where a couple was sitting. I heard a woman scream, and the man beside her was now trapped under the branch.

Walking a few steps closer, I froze, trying to understand what I’d just seen, which seemed unreal. I felt helpless. Others reacted differently than me as some tried to remove the fallen tree branch, some tried to resuscitate the man, while others comforted his wife, saying the ambulance would soon come. It felt like it went on for hours. Once the yellow blanket was placed over the fellow, I knew it was over. He was pronounced dead.

Mike Lee, one of the three people who performed CPR on the victim, described the shock he felt immediately after the event in an interview with the “Trauma and Mental Health Report,” which is republished here:

“The biggest thing that went through my head was that there was nothing going on: no hurricane, no lightning, no typhoon, no volcano or violence; nothing. Just a beautiful day and this tree branch just happened to fall on this guy and killed him on the spot. How could something so beautiful, a beautiful day, turn into such a traumatic event?”

For me, it felt surreal, as if I’d lost control of my existence. I kept thinking that it easily could have been me under that tree. Later, I was left with unresolved questions about God, the universe, my existence and life’s meaning. And, despite having the courage to take action initially, Mike was affected by the traumatic experience too.

“I was in shock. I just walked around with my bike; I couldn’t even get on my bike to ride it. I kept thinking how thankful I was that I was ok and I kind of felt happy that I actually did something – that I didn’t just lock up and freeze. And then, I called my parents to say “I love you”. I was pretty traumatized, to be honest. I am pretty sure that I went home and cried.”

People experience trauma in different ways. For example, some re-experience the trauma itself, have nightmares, get bouts of anger and sadness, experience dissociation and even PTSD. Mike did not experience many negative consequences of this event although, at the time, he expressed sadness. That resonated for me. Sadness and disbelief along with dissociation were what I’d experienced.

Research has shown that dissociation is common after trauma, especially when extreme physiological arousal is present. Most who experience dissociation feel a sense of detachment from their lives. For me, dissociation provided some emotional distance, a buffer to protect myself from the overwhelming emotions that accompany something so tragic.

There are many unique challenges to overcome when faced with a traumatic experience and for some, it becomes a lifelong journey. In some ways, I feel fortunate because for me, facing my mortality was a wake-up call, one that encouraged me to try to live a more authentic and meaningful life. Mike shared similar thoughts:

“I will never forget that day, it was a pretty defining moment. It reminded me that you have one chance at life, and you never know when things are going to go bad. You can be safe your entire life – not fly on planes, be careful on buses, wear your seat belt, don’t do drugs, don’t drink – and you end up in a park one day and a tree falls on you. It just opened my eyes and made me realize life is short, so why not just make the best of it?”

A few months after the event, Toronto police presented Mike Lee with an award for his actions. Mike’s mother accepted it on his behalf, as he had already moved to Japan to start a new business. He had previously quit his job, as the incident led him to re-evaluate his life. Mike explained:

“If there is anything I would want as a message coming from me is for people to really reassess their beliefs and what they are holding onto as the most important things in their life.”

 -Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


When Vicarious Trauma Victims Suffer From PTSD

00Anxiety, Compassion Fatigue, Environment, Featured news, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Trauma October, 19

Source: Charli Forrester, Used with Permission

Prolonged exposure to stress can have devastating effects on mental health. In fact, neuroscientists have found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in the brain’s structure and functioning, making people more prone to mental illnesses such as anxiety, mood disorders, and in particular, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Typically, we associate PTSD with “shell shock”, war veterans, or assault survivors; and we are not wrong about this. But what we sometimes miss is that trauma exists in many forms, stretching way beyond these limits.

Amy Rolfes is an American retired middle school special education teacher and former Executive Director at an American-founded orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Located in one of South Africa’s poorest neighbourhoods, Amy witnessed extreme violence and corruption. Gang violence, murder, and rape were just a few of the realities. This was all new to Amy, who often found herself in survival mode.

Upon returning home from Johannesburg, South Africa, Amy found her mental health was now severely affected. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, she says:

“For the first two years that I was back from South Africa I absolutely was affected by my trauma; I was debilitated, but I couldn’t identify it and no one else could either.”

Amy felt disoriented and struggled to understand the roots of her pain. She experienced flashbacks and had trouble sleeping for months. She remembers a friend suggesting she might be suffering from PTSD.

“I remember that moment so clearly because I threw my hands up in the air and said ‘for God’s sake I wasn’t in Vietnam!’” But Amy started to consider that maybe her friend was right.

It’s common for trauma survivors to minimize their psychological suffering. Some internalize or brush off symptoms. This happened to Amy.  She would ask herself why it was so hard to cope.

A study on PSTD symptoms in 9-1-1 dispatchers shows how wide-reaching trauma can be: It’s not even necessary to be physically present during a traumatic event or even personally know the victim for the event to adversely affect mental health. Vicarious trauma can be as overwhelming as experiencing the situation first-hand.

As Amy explains:

“That’s the part that I am most worried about. People are going over and doing this good work and they are becoming traumatized. They are experiencing trauma and they are hiding it because of shame, and because of not even understanding. If you don’t come home assaulted, or with your arm chopped off, everybody says ‘you’re fine’; and so I kept telling myself ‘no, I’m fine.’”

Amy believed her distress was “less-than” the distress of those who’d experienced trauma first-hand. But the effects of vicarious trauma were debilitating. She contacted the Headington Institute, an online training-centre that partners with humanitarian relief and emergency responders. It provides support, resources, and coping strategies for those who have experienced traumatic stress and vicarious trauma during and after deployment. After reaching out to them, Amy felt as though she was not alone anymore.

“Now, I clearly see that it was as if my entire body was on fire, flames of trauma shooting out.”

Through therapy and writing about her experiences, Amy found recovery. She says the writing process helped her to let go of the disturbing memories and allowed her to distance herself from the trauma.

Amy says:

“It is a sense of peace, after recovering from this trauma, understanding it, learning about it, even re-telling the stories, I really do feel a sense of peace. I feel that there is trauma and crazy things that happen in this world, but nonetheless, everything happens for a reason. I am a lot more accepting, and a lot more forgiving. I feel a deeper sense of self.”.

–Emma Bennett, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


The Hidden Struggles of Animal Rescue Workers

00Animal Behavior, Depression, Featured news, Resilience, Suicide, Trauma September, 19

Source: 12019 at Pixabay, Creative Commons

During the civil war in Syria, veterinary surgeon Amir Khalil from the charity organization Four Paws International, travelled to Aleppo to rescue surviving zoo animals. Before the war began, the zoo was home to around 300 animals, yet by July 2017 only 13 remained. After months of intense negotiations with the Syrian and Turkish governments, local factions and warlords, and two dangerous rescue missions later, Khalil managed to save all 13 animals. Prior to this rescue, Khalil had rescued animals from conflict zones in Libya, Gaza and Iraq. 

When tragedy strikes, most people think about the potential harm done to human lives. However, many care deeply about animals and are willing to put their lives at risk to save them. In fact, during Hurricane Katrina, of those who did not evacuate their homes, 44% did so because they did not want to abandon their pets.  

Research has even shown that there are some circumstances in which people chose to save pets over humans. One study showed that 40% of people chose to save their own pet over a foreign tourist. Another study showed that when presented with a fictional news story, people cared more about crimes involving dogs and children than adults. A possible reason for this surprising finding was likely due to the vulnerable nature of animals. In fact Khalil felt compelled to rescue many animals in the past simply because the zoo animals were dependent on humans. In an interview with The Telegraph, he explained: 

“Humans have the option to escape, but animals caged in a zoo don’t have this option. It was humans who brought animals to these places. They cannot speak, they have no political agenda, but they are messengers from the darkness, they bring hope.”

Other animal rescue workers express similar sentiments. Darren Grandel, Deputy Chief of the investigations department at the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, explained in an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report (TMHR) that the most difficult part of his enforcement work is witnessing innocents being harmed: 

“The animals, all the time, are the innocents. It’s not that they’ve chosen to engage in a type of activity that can harm them. The humans have done it to them. So a lot of the time you’re seeing innocent animals being harmed, sometimes in very horrific ways, in ways that you couldn’t imagine someone hurting another living thing. It can be very, very traumatic.”

When working on rescuing  animals such as in the wake of a natural disaster, a similar type of trauma can be experienced.  In a TMHR interview, Miranda Spindel, a veterinarian with 19 years of experience, including a decade with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals explained:

“On deployment, you are typically away from home and often working in conditions that are less than ideal. Sometimes, there are animal owners as well as animals involved, who may have experienced very stressful and emotionally challenging situations and require skilled and compassionate care, too. Often the work is physically as well as mentally challenging.”

Animal rescue work, though important, severely affects the mental health of these individuals. Humanitarian aid workers and first responders report high rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD. Animal rescue workers occupy similar roles, rescuing and proving aid to animals in distress and likely experience similar mental health problems. And, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, those in protective service occupations, including animal control workers, have the highest rate of suicide, at 5.3 per million workers. 

Veterinarians and others individuals who work with animals also experience high rates of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious traumatization, refers to stress symptoms that result from providing care and empathy to humans or animals in distress. 

Janice Hannah, Campaign Manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Northern Dog Project described one such experience in a TMHR interview:

“I remember visiting a rural shelter. The dogs were literally stuck in a poop filled fence, cold, wet and hungry. That was the end of shelter work for me – I had been to so many similar shelters around the world and am reminded of the sadness felt in those situations. Though those feelings dissipate over time, it never goes fully away. You end up building up more and more sadness and discomfort around all the animals that you see but can’t make a tangible difference about the circumstance. 

There are some programs in place, such as support groups and internal services within organizations to help animal rescue workers recover from trauma. Yet, more needs to be done to better help individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping animals. Increased peer support and open communication without fear of stigma are required to better help individuals with mental health problems. Spindel emphasizes that preventative measures are equally important:  

“Whether or not workers are suffering from mental health issues, the circumstances are generally enough, in my opinion, that mental health services and resources should be made available as a matter of routine. Trained support during the deployment – or even before – not just debriefing afterward – seems critical to building resiliency for this type of work.”

From enforcement officers to veterinarians, many different professionals work selflessly to rescue innocent animals from harm. With greater support services, these individuals will be better able to cope with the stresses of their job, enabling them to better help animals in need.  

-Roselyn Gishen, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


When a subway passenger dies by suicide, workers suffer too

00Featured news, Mental Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, Trauma, Work August, 19

Source: Lily Banse at Unsplash, Creative Commons

In an article in a Canadian daily, The Globe and Mail, Oliver Moore reported that during 2016, 21 suicide attempts occurred on Toronto’s subway system. In fact, a study published by the Journal of Urban Health considers suicide on subway platforms to be a public health issue.

Subway delays by attempted suicide not only affect passengers, the victims and their families, but drivers as well. Subway workers and drivers who have witnessed a suicide have been reported to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research suggests that those exposed to human-generated traumatic events have a greater chance of developing PTSD.   In an interview with Vice Magazine, psychologist Wilfried Echterhoff discussed the long-lasting psychological trauma workers face when confronted with a death on the worksite:

“Some people have never been confronted with death before…To suddenly be confronted with it in such a violent way can lead to PTSD or a serious depression.”

In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Robert (name changed), a retired subway worker with over 30 years of experience, described an incident he faced while working: 

“One Saturday afternoon maybe around 11:00 a.m. or 12:00 p.m., I witnessed a lady jump off the subway platform. I needed to go upstairs and tell my supervisor and my supervisor told me that my face was all white. They kicked everyone out and only the police and ambulance were allowed to come in.” 

Nik Douglas, a train driver who worked for the Northallerton subway station in the UK, noted in an interview with The Independent:   

“When I was on my own I’d burst into tears for no reason, I found sleep hard and I’d have flashbacks during the night and day. I could be in a room full of people with a really good party atmosphere but feel alone and isolated. That’s one of the biggest things I remember, feeling alone… It changed my life instantly from who I was to what I have become. Some people aren’t affected, but two years after it happened I’m still not the same person.”

In deciding what was best for his mental health, Nik took six months off work to deal with his PTSD. Recent studies suggest that in Canada, 6.5% of subway workers have been absent from work due to witnessing suicides while working. Last November, this rate was at its highest with 7.44% of employees absent. Some employees are unable to return to work altogether and opt to receive compensation from their employers.

Nik experienced intrusive distress and feelings of isolation. Kevin, a 39-year-old subway driver expressed his feeling of being responsible for the suicide of a man:

“When he looked at me and our eyes met, time just stood still. It felt like driving your car over railroad tracks, that rumbling feeling you get … I realized then that I just killed somebody.”  

In his years of working at the subway, Robert explained the brief protocol subway workers go through once they have witnessed a suicide:

“The subway drivers have to talk to the police after that happens. They always have to stay and give a statement. Then they’re taken off duty for that day. Then they get sent home or to counselling. It depends on what the driver wants to do. It just started recently in the last five or six years.  The company asks if the drivers want to speak to someone.”

Effective suicide preventions have been created to decrease the suicide rate in subway stations and increase safety. Subway stations in Tokyo have implemented glass doors that open for passengers to board the subway only once it has arrived in the station. Other preventions put in place are blue lights and mirrors set up to discourage suicide attempts. In London and Paris, these forms of preventions have been effective too. 

In addition, intervention programs, including the Gatekeeper Program, exist for those who are feeling suicidal.  However, interventions put in place for subway workers who experience suicides are rare. Most workers deal with the effect of these experiences on their own. In Robert’s words:

“If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen.  There’s nothing you can do. They don’t tell you this can happen or that can happen.  They won’t tell you what can happen when you sign up for this job.  They don’t tell you that workers deal with this.  They don’t train you how to deal with it.  They won’t ever tell you what to expect even when training people.”

Social support is argued to be one of the most powerful factors in recovering from PTSD and is known to decrease risk for depression, foster resilience, and reduce stress in those who have experienced traumatic events.  Mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy has shown to reduce stress and increase recovery in those with PTSD.  

Lucia Chiara Limanni, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


What Happens After Children Are Freed From Captivity?

00Caregiving, Cognition, Depression, Embarrassment, Featured news, Law and Crime, Shyness, Trauma July, 19

Source: James Sutton, creative commons

On occasion, we hear of extreme cases of child abuse, making family names like the Turpins infamous.

The 13 Turpin children were held captive in their house, where they were limited to only one meal a day and one shower a year. Twelve of the children were subject to extreme physical abuse, and one suffered from sexual abuse. The eldest child, who was 29 years old, weighed only 82 pounds.

Cases like these often publicize legal proceedings and atrocities committed by the parents, but disregard what happens to these children—the victims— in the aftermath. 

Research on children held captive is sparse, however, there are some studies of other high-profile cases where children suffered extreme deprivation. A well-known one is Genie, a child who was isolated in a small bedroom where she was strapped to a toilet seat during the day, or trapped in a crib with wire covering. She received absolutely no stimulation and was only fed infant food. 

When Genie was found at age 13, she was unable to perform basic functions, such as chewing, biting, standing or walking. She spent years trying to learn to speak but was unable to acquire language fully or normally. After years of testing by psychologists and physicians, her mother forbade further assessment of Genie, and she is now living in the care of the state of California.

Maude Julien, a psychotherapist from France who herself was subjected to captivity by her parents, now treats patients who are victims of trauma. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, Maude describes her experiences growing up.

“For about 15 years, I practically never went out. I never went to school; my mother was my home-school teacher. My father wanted to create a superhuman, uncorrupted by this world,” Maude said. “I had to undergo a ‘training of the mind’ in order to become this ‘superhuman.’ He wanted me to believe that the world outside was terrible.”

Maude described the effects of severe trauma caused and explained her recovery process.

“I had to learn the simplest, most basic social conventions like speaking to strangers or finding my way around. Above all, I had to learn how to talk, because my long periods of forced silence had made me almost mute,” Maude said.

“Even though I was learning all this, I was still imprisoned behind the ‘gates’ of conditioning. I could still hear in my head, day and night, the tick-tock of my father timing everything,” she said.

Maude described her recovery as the need to “free herself from the mental and emotional hold” she was under. It took her more than ten years to overcome the consequences of her imprisonment.

Maude explains how reading, and connecting with animals and other people helped her cope with trauma. She attributes her ability to get out of the house to her music teacher and describes her second husband’s parents as an instrumental part in helping her mature.

“I was 24 when I met them and they helped the child inside me grow up. I felt unconditional parental love for the first time; it’s one of the greatest gifts in the world,” Maude said.

Children who have been held captive by a relative often think they deserve it and live with a heavy feeling of shame and guilt. 

“It’s usually shame that prevents victims from seeking help,” Maude said. “They have also a feeling of isolation, because a predator like my father, makes the victim believe that he alone can love and protect them.”

Children reported in these high-profile cases may feel guilty for having “betrayed” their parents, yet may also feel relief for having escaped. She describes living with this duality as being very “painful.”

“They will have to free themselves from the ‘psychological leash’ imposed by their predator,” Maude said. “They will have to learn how to trust certain people, and they will have to learn how to recognize other predators and stay away from them. Most of all, they have to learn how to trust themselves.”

—Amanda Piccirilli, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Coping Through the Lens of a Camera

00Attention, Career, Ethics and Morality, Featured news, Media, Trauma, Work May, 19

Source: American Documentary, Inc at Flickr, Creative Commons

Documentaries tell compelling stories. But while we become captivated by moments on screen, we forget there is someone behind the camera, watching events unfold in real-time. Cameraperson, a recently released documentary by Kirsten Johnson, portrays her experiences filming documentaries, and it includes footage captured while traveling and filming.

Johnson has travelled the world – from the United States, to South America, to Europe – filming documentaries on topics such as America’s hunger problem or a notorious FBI burglary. She worked on Citizen Four, a documentary about a former CIA agent leaking government information. Sometimes, the stories are about traumatic historical events such as the Rwandan Genocide and the Bosnian War. She has visited the sites of mass killings and heard the stories of people who have survived tragedies. 

I had the opportunity to speak with Johnson, and learn about her experiences. Born in Seattle, she was always curious about the world and wanted to travel. She describes herself as a “visual person.” And as the daughter of a psychiatrist, she always wondered about the unique experiences of others. Her personal background, along with an interest in political inequalities, led her to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking.

In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Johnson explains why she followed this path:

“As a doc filmmaker you’re trying to help reveal a human rights injustice, or a problem that people haven’t looked at or paid attention to, and you know people don’t want to hear it. People don’t want to watch a film about rape in Bosnia. Then the question is, how do you find a way for people to look at things they don’t want to look at?”

I asked Johnson about one of her first jobs filming documentaries:

“I filmed over 200 interviews with holocaust survivors, it was one of the first experiences I had in filmmaking and being deeply interested in how people tell the stories of their trauma. I got interested in the stories themselves, and how people remember them because some people remember different aspects. What I found surprising was that over half the people I interviewed had never talked to anyone about it before—this was the first time they had ever talked about it. There was just a curiosity in me, how could it be that somebody experienced something so devastating and never spoke of it?”

Many filmmakers have likely had similar experiences, so I was curious if Johnson had ever shared her experiences with other people in the industry:

“As camera people, we work so much we rarely get the chance to talk together. I have always talked a great deal with the people who I film with as they’re listening and I’m watching. We process our experience together. Or the translators, those are the kinds of people I’ve had deep conversations about things we were witnessing together.”

Johnson described some of the unspeakable events she had witnessed, and how she copes with the trauma while still doing her work:

“There’s often an aesthetic pleasure even though you may be filming a terrible moment—somehow, the light, the fabric, their skin, what they are wearing, helps you as the camera person cope with the things you are taking in. That’s what I realized when I was looking back at my own footage. It’s this active creative process you’re involved with when you’re trying to organize it and see it differently and search for the beauty in it.”

She described one such experience with a Bosnian family:

“We were filming about how rape was a weapon during the Bosnian war and listening to horrible stories about people who had to leave their homes. Being with one of the few families who had returned to their home—it was beautiful to witness that.”

When asked about the particularly overwhelming and painful moments she is confronted with during film shoots, Johnson incorporates practical and simple strategies to maintain “psychological equilibrium”. 

“ I try to sleep enough, eat with relish, laugh a lot and move in all kinds of ways. I read what others have written, talk to friends, see a therapist who has known me for years, watch movies and play with my kids. If I have been traveling too much, I stay home and if I have stayed somewhere too long, I go somewhere new and the world surprises me one more time.” 

The importance of telling stories is integral to documentaries. Filmmaking is about more than just reporting on tragedies, it’s about giving people a voice. Yet, more often than not, we don’t think about the person behind the camera, who witnesses trauma in order to share stories with the world.

-Amanda Piccirelli, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Jurors Are Left Traumatized by Some Court Cases

00Decision-Making, Dopamine, Empathy, Featured news, Law and Crime, Mental Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Stress, Trauma April, 19

Source: Marica Villeneuve, Trauma and Mental Health Report artist, used with permission

On November 7, 2016, the Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario reached a settlement with a juror diagnosed with vicarious post-traumatic stress disorder. The juror served on the trial of eight-year-old Tori Stafford’s killer.

The woman, who cannot be named due to a publication ban protecting the identity of jurors in this case, received the diagnosis months after performing her civic duty. Four years ago, she was one of 12 jurors in the trial of Michael Rafferty, the man charged and convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and murdering Stafford.

While sitting on the jury during the two-month trial, the woman visited scenes of rape, saw photographic evidence of the crime, and heard eyewitness testimony from Rafferty’s girlfriend and accomplice, Terri-Lynne McClintic.

In a submission to the Ontario Court of Appeal, the juror said that, almost immediately after the trial, she lashed out at her children, suffered from depression, had flashbacks to disturbing pieces of evidence, and experienced short-term memory loss and difficulties with concentration.

Over the course of a criminal trial, jurors are often exposed to disturbing graphic evidence. And while jury members are instructed to remain unbiased and evenhanded, the process can take a toll on their mental health.

Beyond the traumatizing effects of graphic evidence, the weight of the task itself can be harmful to jurors’ wellbeing. The high-stakes decision that members have been tasked with, which includes determining the fate of someone’s life, can be psychologically taxing. This pattern of stress and anxiety is frequently observed in other high-pressure jobs that involve exposure to traumatic information and heavy responsibilities, such as social work.

Patrick Baillie, a psychologist with Alberta Health Services, and former Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, says that jury members are often not mentally prepared to sit through a criminal trial:

“These are twelve citizens who don’t typically have any involvement with the system, which is why we want them to serve as jurors, being given this extraordinary task with not a whole lot of mental support.”

In addition to the responsibility of remaining impartial, jurors are not allowed to share any details related to their deliberations. To protect the integrity of the trial, members are prohibited from discussing their personal views on the evidence, witnesses, or trial process, to ensure confidential information cannot be related back to discussions that took place in the jury room. Baillie explains:

“It is illegal to disclose the deliberation of a jury to anybody. So, [you] can’t tell a spouse and family and friends… people in [your] usual support system and the mental health professionals that [you] may want to come in contact with down the road. We need to make sure that jurors are not identified and to make sure the process is pure as it can be.”

Under these circumstances, jury members are left to process the psychological and emotional effects of the trial on their own.

Barbara Legate, the lawyer representing the juror from Stafford’s case, argues:

“We ask jurors to sit through days, weeks, and sometimes months of testimony and sometimes that testimony is very, very difficult, and we ask them to keep it to themselves, not discuss it with people outside.”

Until recently, Ontario judges were responsible for deciding whether jurors should be offered counseling at the end of a trial. Jurors would then either be connected with counselors provided by the Ministry of the Attorney General or would pursue counseling on their own.

Starting in January 2017, however, Ontario initiates a new program to provide free and accessible counseling services to anyone serving on a jury. The Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi says the Juror Support Program will be available for anyone serving in a criminal or civil trial, or an inquest.

Jurors will be provided with information on the program at the beginning of a trial, and then again as it finishes. They will call a designated phone number, speak to a specialist who does an assessment, and have counseling made available to them. A third party will provide and cover the costs of the counseling services, but the government still determines who that third party will be. Naqui says:

“Jurors in difficult trials do face evidence that could be quite horrific, and we’ve heard those stories. It’s only appropriate that we provide appropriate services.”

-Veerpal Bambrah, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


When Male Rape Victims Are Accountable for Child Support

00Adolescence, Caregiving, Featured news, Law and Crime, Sex, Trauma February, 19

Source: Steve Halama at Unsplash, Creative Commons

When Shane Seyer was 12, he was sexually exploited by his 16-year-old babysitter Colleen Hermesmann. She became pregnant with Seyer’s child in 1989 and was charged with statutory rape shortly afterward. Instead of being convicted of rape, Hermesmann was declared a juvenile offender under the non-sexual offense of “contributing to child misconduct.” Seyer was subsequently court-ordered to pay child support.

In 1993, at the age of 15, Seyer appealed this decision to the Kansas Supreme Court, arguing he should not be liable for these payments. He maintained that his babysitter (Hermesmann) took advantage of him sexually when he was too young to give consent.

The Kansas Supreme Court ruled against him. The judgment stated that, because Seyer initially consented to the sexual encounters and never told his parents what was happening, he was responsible for supporting the child.

This court case set a precedent for male rape victims to make child-support payments. The financial needs of the children outweigh the court’s interest in deterring sexual crimes against male minors, even if statutory rape is the cause of conception.

More recently, in 2014, Nick Olivas of Arizona was forced to pay over $15,000 in back-payments to a woman who had sex with him when he was 14. She was 20 years old at the time. Commenting on the Olivas case and others like it, Mel Feit, director of the New York-based advocacy group the National Center for Men, told the Arizona Republic newspaper:

“To hold him unresponsible for the sex act, and to then turn around and say we’re going to hold him responsible for the child that resulted from that act is off-the-charts ridiculous… it makes no sense.”

Peter Pollard, co-founder of 1in6, an organization designed to help male assault survivors, explained in an interview with the Good Men Project why we downplay the severity of male sexual assault:

“We’re all raised in a culture that says boys are always supposed to initiate and enjoy a sexual experience and males are never supposed to see themselves or be seen as victims. The easiest default is to blame the victim, to say ‘he wanted it,’ ‘he must have chosen that.’”

These attitudes toward male sexual assault are apparent even in the way these men are treated during their court cases.

In 1996, the court heard the case of County of San Luis Obispo v. Nathaniel J in which a 34-year-old woman became pregnant after sexually exploiting a 15-year-old boy. He was also forced to pay child support, and then Deputy Attorney General Mary Roth alleged:

“I guess he thought he was a man then. Now, he prefers to be considered a child.”

Some professionals, such as Mary Koss from the University of Arizona who published the first national rape study in 1987, even argued that men and boys cannot be raped by women. In a radio interview, Koss stated:

“How would [a man being raped by a woman] happen… how would that happen by force or threat of force or when the victim is unable to consent? How does that happen? I would call it ‘unwanted contact.’”

Research indicates, however, that men can be stimulated and achieve an erection in times of fear and terror, despite not being aroused. Studies range from cases where men report arousal during assault, to scientific experiments that find men have erections under many non-sexual circumstances, including when they are unconscious.

In her research, Myriam Denov, a professor at McGill University who holds the Canada Research Chair in Youth, Gender and Armed Conflict, asserted:

“The professional assumption that sexual abuse by women is less harmful than similar abuse by men has potentially dangerous implications for [male] victims of sexual abuse. If professionals fail to recognize sexual abuse by women as potentially serious and harmful, child protection plans will not be made.”

She goes on to say that, as a result, the experiences of male victims who come forward to disclose sexual abuse by women may be trivialized. These misconceptions can lead to delayed referral to social services, or failure to provide victims with the care and support they require.

Until the idea that women cannot rape men and other rape myths are dispelled, cases where victims are misunderstood and mistreated, and even made to pay child support to their former abusers, are likely to continue.

– Ty LeBlanc, Contributing Writer

The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today