Psychology in Action!

Assessment and Intervention Tools for Victims of Piracy

APA member Michael Garfinkle is beginning a project to understand high-seas piracy and to develop guidelines for those affected by it

By Merry Bullock, PhD

Boats in water

We have all read the news headlines about piracy on the high seas. APA member Michael Garfinkle is doing more - he is delving into the effects of piracy on its victims in a project that is a collaboration among shippers, insurers, mental health workers, and others. The project is housed in the Seaman’s Church Institute, a service organization dedicated to caring for the needs of mariners around the world.

“Piracy,” says Garfinkle, “is a particularly intriguing phenomenon on many levels; being a victim of piracy or even travelling through piracy zones has important health consequences for sailors and for their families.” The victims of piracy are typically on large commercial vessels that are hijacked for the ransom they bring. The crews on such vessels are held hostage during negotiations for the vessels’ release that may take months to complete. And in some regards, piracy is unique among traumatic events because, victims have, in one way of looking at it, put themselves voluntarily in harm’s way and voluntary return to the same context of risk, by serving as crew on vessels that travel in piracy zones. There are, of course, strong economic incentives to do this - crews on vessels that travel in risky waters earn 2-3 times normal crew pay. “We know that being a victim of piracy is stressful and has health repercussions. But we know too little about the phenomenon -- how the stress from piracy compares to the baseline stress of being at sea, how piracy is understood and responded to within the mariner culture, how this interacts with a person’s own cultural background, what kinds of interventions are important to consider within individual, family and cultural contexts, and that symptoms distress takes,” adds Garfinkle.

Michael Garfinkle, PhD at the Seamen's Church InstituteTo understand piracy, and to work toward the goal of developing assessment and intervention tools as part of a trained response to piracy, Garfinkle is leading the first-ever psychological study of the effects of piracy on seafarers. The project, a collaboration between the Center for Seafarers’ Rights (CSR) at the Seaman’s Church Institute, the New York Psychoanalytic Society & Institute, and the Mt. Sinai Disaster Psychiatry Outreach group, seeks to lead to the development of recommendations to the private and public sectors on how best to safeguard the welfare of those affected by piracy. “My plan,” says Garfinkle, “is to integrate the experiences of seafarers, the interests of the maritime industry, and the knowledge base from psychology and psychiatry to develop a practical assessment and intervention package.” To do this Garfinkle will interview crew who have been victims of piracy, as well as mental health and health professionals who have intervened on ships released from captivity. He will also compare piracy survivors with a control group of seafarers longitudinally to track health effects, family effects and work effects. Garfinkle notes that it is important to take a multifaceted approach to the phenomenon, because the experience of piracy and its effect on victims and their families most likely vary widely according to seafarers’ culture of origin and present community. The research, and the ultimate development of assessment and intervention tools will need to recognize that crews come from many countries, generally have lower levels of resources, and are mobile, making immediate and long-term followup especially difficult.

In December, the Seaman’s Church Institute sponsored a roundtable discussion (see Seaman's Church Institute) with representatives from a broad group, including trade unions, crew management companies, maritime security companies, maritime law firms, and mental health professionals. The group stressed the importance of adopting a broad program including preparation, planning, and interventions with both crew and their families.  Read the report (PDF, 111KB). For the latest update to this project, see Preliminary Guidelines for Post-Piracy Care.