The gift of giving

Written by Faith Merriweather, Azalea’s Partnership Mental Health Officer.

According to Baumeister (1991) as humans we must create a sense of meaning for our existence. There are 4 needs that must be met to feel fulfilled. These are: a need for purpose, a need for values, a need for efficacy (that your actions have a determinable impact on the world around you), and a need for self-worth and being able to believe you are a good person. People draw meaning in these areas from various sources: relationships, jobs, membership in community groups, religion, and personal goals. When these needs are not addressed this can lead to depression, anxiety, substance misuse, hopelessness, apathy, and aggression (Glaw, Kable, Hazelton, and Inder, 2017). 

Many of these areas are compromised for those involved in sex-trafficking. Often women have insecure housing. They end up sofa surfing. They sleep on the sofa of an acquaintance in return for “favours” which places them in unsafe situations. They must manipulate, lie, beg, cheat and steal to get their basic needs met. Life becomes about how to survive the next hour. Their “friends” are more interested in their own survival and benefiting themselves. They have to be constantly guarded as even kindness can be exploited. It becomes hard to maintain relationships with family and friends who are not in the same situation. Most of the people they connect with are either struggling themselves or are professionals paid to help them. They have to constantly ask others for help, as the problems in their lives become increasingly unmanageable. Life spirals out of control and so does their mental health, which becomes an ever more complicated mix of historical trauma and current harm. With this comes an escalating drug habit to cope with everything. A sense of worthlessness, shame, and hopelessness creeps into times of stillness. Quiet becomes something to run from as you face what you’ve endured.

Recovery is about retrieving the life that has been lost in this cycle of abuse, trauma, and substance misuse. Once women begin the process of recovery their lives slow down from the autopilot they have been on. Sometimes they find there is not much of a life left for them. Years spent unemployed, neglected physical health conditions, criminal records, prejudiced attitudes of others, strained familial connections, and the ongoing effects of trauma are all challenges that face them. Yet steadily people regain a sense of self. They find the ability to choose, remember their hobbies; and develop new skills, interests, and talents.

Finding the opportunities to give and having responsibility tends to be a large and daunting obstacle. Overcoming this is unique for each individual and requires a self-belief that in sex trafficked victims has been systematically undermined for years. Rediscovering this part of oneself is a huge benefit to recovery. Working has been shown to have many protective factors on our mental health (Marrone, and Golowka, 1999). It gives us ways to feel empowered and make meaning in our lives. People should be able to say: “I matter, people would miss me if I wasn’t here, and I make a meaningful contribution to those around me”. Those who experience trauma get stuck in relational cycles that must be broken through a sense of self-efficacy. A great way to regain a sense of purpose and control in one’s life is having others rely on you. There is a gift, often taken for granted, in having agency, autonomy, and resources to give to others. The many gifts and talents that survivors of sex-trafficking have: their personalities, character, gifting and natural abilities that are so evident have fewer natural outlets to be expressed. Even the agencies set up to help individuals can become part of the problem when there are no mechanisms to allow individuals to regain these meaning-making parts of themselves. People must always have the right to give.


Baumeister, R.F. and Vohs, K.D., 2002. The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. Handbook of positive psychology, 1, pp.608-618.

Glaw, X., Kable, A., Hazelton, M. and Inder, K., 2017. Meaning in life and meaning of life in mental health care: An integrative literature review. Issues in mental health nursing, 38(3), pp.243-252.

Marrone, J. and Golowka, E., 1999. If work makes people with mental illness sick, what do unemployment, poverty, and social isolation cause?. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 23(2), p.187.

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