Study: Piracy triggering mental-health ailments among mariners

Seafarers who have been attacked by pirates suffer stress and trauma that may require professional treatment, according to the results of a three-year medical study. Yet many of those seamen feel they cannot seek help out of concerns of being stigmatized or “blacklisted” from future employment, or because effective mental health care is not available to them.

The study, undertaken by the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) of New York and New Jersey in collaboration with New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, seeks to describe the condition of victims of piracy and to advise the maritime industry and health care professionals on how to care for them.

“The seamen are under enormous stress in general, such as from the isolation from their homes and families, and then piracy just adds to this seemingly exponentially,” said Dr. Craig Katz, a psychiatrist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and co-investigator.

Of the 154 seafarers interviewed for the study, the majority of whom were interviewed in person at the Port of Newark, 11 reported being held in captivity for as little as one week to as much as a year. Fourteen others reported attempted boardings.

The seafarers did not feel their job was unduly stressful under normal conditions. From 2009 to 2011, as attacks increased around the world, concern about piracy grew along with worry about moving through waters susceptible to piracy.

Seafarers increasingly expressed support for posting armed guards aboard ships for protection, but very few wanted to arm themselves. Ships’ officers expressed concerns that unencrypted communication between vessels put them more at risk to pirates.

Seafarers held captive or attacked by pirates experienced clinically significant symptoms afterwards. Twenty said they had concerns about returning to work; others suffered sleep disturbances, diminished energy and increased use of alcohol. Also reported was loss of pleasure in formerly pleasurable activities, increased irritability, deterioration of relationships and even thoughts of suicide.

Fewer than one-third felt they received adequate follow-up care. One, who endured an eight-month hijacking off the coast of Somalia during which some of the crew was tortured, described a five-minute meeting with a supposed medical professional once the ship was freed. “All he could do was check my blood pressure,” the seafarer named Dipendra said in a videotaped interview.

Doug Stevenson, director of the Center for Seafarers’ Rights at the SCI, said the study identified several issues: lack of scientific literature on seafarers’ lives and work; no reasonable baseline to measure their stress; concerns about disclosing private medical records; seafarers’ concerns about being viewed as unfit for future employment. The stigma of seeking mental health care looms large. “You’re not going to see some shrink. You deal with it. You’re a man,” he said.

SCI is developing criteria to help health care professionals immediately assess traumas suffered by seafarers so the information can be shared with providers at home. “We really have to look at dealing with the stigma, making mental health care, and other care, more accessible to seafarers,” Stevenson said. “That would require the industry, the shipowners, and governments, ensuring that you’re not punished by seeking care, that there be some sort of a disability system where they can get compensation while they’re undergoing therapy, all designed to return the seafarers to employability.”

By Professional Mariner Staff