Council Conversation: Empowering Survivors of Human Trafficking in the Philippines

On June 15, 2021, the Council for the Advancement of Global Mental Health Research welcomed Dr. Laura Cordisco Tsai, a 2019-2020 recipient of the Council Grants Program. Dr. Cordisco Tsai is a current Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School, and she also serves as Executive Director at the Eleison Foundation, which promotes mental health and economic empowerment with trauma-informed programming. Dr. Cordisco Tsai presented culturally-informed practices for survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking in our Council Conversation: “Empowering Survivors of Human Trafficking in the Philippines.” Dr. Kathleen Pike moderated this virtual event.

Dr. Kathleen Pike (left) in conversation with Dr. Laura Cordisco Tsai (right).

Dr. Cordisco Tsai encouraged attendees to reimagine trafficking as the recruitment or transport of individuals through force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of exploitation. She explained that survivors experienced depression, anxiety, PTSD, severe guilt, and suicidal ideation following their lived emotional, physical, and sexual violence. Though, many of these illnesses go untreated and unaddressed because of stigma and low mental health capacity in the Philippines.

In response, Dr. Cordisco Tsai and collaborators in the Philippines pioneered a culturally and contextually adapted version of the Safety Planning Intervention for suicide prevention, trained staff at a local anti-trafficking organization, and implemented the protocol with survivors of human trafficking in the region. These three phases launched a communal effort to build trust and to expand social support networks among this vulnerable population.

The global pandemic shifted Dr. Cordisco Tsai’s research to a virtual setting, but she and local collaborators in the Philippines have since conducted a rapid assessment of survivors to understand their needs and priorities. The survivors identified unemployment, food insecurity, and increased crisis incidence as the greatest areas of mental health concern; as a result, local operations are now centering emergency assistance programs to alleviate the financial strain of survivors. Overall, Dr. Cordisco Tsai advocates for building bridges between employment, security, capacity, identity, agency, and mental health.

This overview was written by one of our Global Mental Health Undergraduate Summer Interns. Throughout the summer, our interns will continue to share overviews of various lectures and webinars they attend.

For Council Members who were unable to join, a recording of this event was emailed out in a recent announcement. Please email [email protected] with any questions.