by Douglas B. Stevenson, Director, Center for Seafarers’ Rights
I attended the February 28, 2012, meeting of Working Group 3 of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia at the State Department in Washington, DC. The Contact Group, a voluntary, ad hoc international forum, started in 2009 pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution. The Group brings together governments and maritime stakeholders to coordinate efforts to bring an end to piracy off the coast of Somalia. Working Group 3 (WG3) works closely with the maritime industry to enhance awareness and improve capabilities. I participated in the Contact Group process to call attention to the critical need to provide care for seafarers—and their families— affected by piracy.
At the February 28 meeting, I presented an update on the Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) clinical study (conducted in conjunction with Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York) of the effects of piracy on seafarers’ mental health. Our team of medical doctors and clinical psychologists has completed the data collection phase of the study that included interviews of seafarers representing diverse nationalities and cultures of maritime commerce. Scientists are now analyzing the data, which SCI’s Clinical Researcher, Dr. Michael Garfinkle, will present at a conference in Cape Town, South Africa this July.
At previous WG3 meetings, I introduced SCI’s Guidelines: Post-Piracy Care for Seafarers, a document that explores issues surrounding mental health care for seafarers affected by piracy. Governments, international organizations, the maritime industry and non-governmental organizations have told us they find our Guidelines useful and, in fact, the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP) referenced SCI’s Guidelines in its excellent Good Practice Guides. SCI has made Version 3.0 of its Guidelines available on its website.
SCI also draws from experience gained in the clinical study to prepare guidance for first responders. We plan to share this advice with the MPHRP to assist their development of first responder guidance and training programs.
I also drew WG3’s attention to SCI’s video interviews of seafarers posted online. They contain firsthand accounts of seafarers’ experiences at the hands of pirates. The YouTube series now includes four seafarer interviews. SCI continues to gather additional witnesses to the toll of piracy on seafarers and their families.
I deeply appreciate the increased attention that the WG3 devotes to caring for seafarers and their families who have been affected by piracy. Much work remains to be done. Pirates have held more than 4,500 seafarers hostage since 2006. Many seafarers have not received wages or reimbursement for personal property stolen by pirates while held hostage.
Governments must ensure affected seafarers receive appropriate medical care and therapy if they need it. Equally critical, employers must not view seafarers as “damaged goods” after a piracy incident. Seafarers, like most people, are resilient and can benefit from mental health therapy in cases of normal post-stress symptoms.
Confronting the stigma of mental health care that deters many seafarers from taking advantage of effective therapy remains our biggest challenge. Programs designed to provide mental health therapy for seafarers offer little benefit if seafarers do not take advantage of them because they fear losing their jobs or not being rehired. I asked WG3 to join SCI in attacking the stigma of mental health care.