PTSD Takes a Lasting Toll on Seafarers Held Hostage by Pirates

The maritime industry is full of risk, but piracy is a particularly frightening one. Conor Seyle of the foundation One Earth Future explains why the maritime industry needs to better address the PTSD that seafarers may experience.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
An armed Somali pirate keeping vigil on the coastline at Hobyo.MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images

Working at sea has always been dangerous, but this is especially true for the men and women who experience piracy, often in hot spots near Somalia and, increasingly, West Africa. From 1984 to 2016 there were 7,567 incidents of reported piracy or armed robbery, according to the International Maritime Organization, and 221 incidents in 2016 alone.

Seafarers caught by pirates and especially those taken hostage for an extended period of time may be shot at, threatened and beaten or witness their colleagues being killed – and a growing body of research documents the lasting mental health effects of these experiences.

In a recent paper published in the journal Marine Policy, an international team of researchers investigated how common the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are among seafarers who have been taken hostage by pirates compared to those who haven’t been exposed to piracy. After surveying more than 450 seafarers from the Philippines, Ukraine and India – three nations that supply much of the maritime workforce – the team found that more than one-quarter of former hostages had lasting symptoms consistent with PTSD whereas non-hostages had a 4 percent chance of symptoms.

Conor Seyle, a psychologist and the director of research at One Earth Future, a group that runs the program Oceans Beyond Piracy, is the lead author on the paper. Oceans Deeply spoke with Seyle about how PTSD is understood within the maritime industry and what steps can be taken to support seafarers who experience pirate attacks.

Oceans Deeply: In this study, you used a survey. How are you able to determine the rates of PTSD from that?

Conor Seyle: We didn’t diagnose these seafarers, because an actual diagnosis is an individual assessment. That kind of decision can only be made in the context of a clinical relationship and an interview from a medical professional. Because of that, in the paper we talk about “probable PTSD” or “symptoms consistent with PTSD.” The distinction here is that the survey we used is a validated questionnaire that has a lot of research behind it showing that a specific pattern of answers on this question is strongly correlated with an eventual diagnosis of PTSD.

I wouldn’t say that anybody has PTSD on the basis of the answers that they give the survey. I will say that, in the aggregate and at the statistical level that we present, there is going to be a strong association. It may be that one person who comes out as having symptoms of PTSD in our sample doesn’t actually have [PTSD]. But the majority of people – 90 percent of them or so – probably do.

Oceans Deeply: What do these seafarers go through when captured by pirates that causes PTSD symptoms?

Seyle: When pirates attack a vessel, they approach in small boats with a couple of pirates, usually with AK-47s and RPGs, and they open fire on the vessel when they get close enough. If you’re a seafarer, your vessel might undergo evasive maneuvers. You and your crew might break out the fire hose and try to wash these pirates off the side of the vessel. But you’ve got a fire hose and these guys have automatic rifles.

There’s a lot of reports of [pirates] beating folks, sometimes at random. Then, the vessel is taken back to shore and, for a period that may be years long, the seafarers are kept confined to the vessel. They’re usually not given enough food. They’re frequently beaten and abused, often for fun and sometimes for strategy.

It is not uncommon for pirates to try to call the family members, and then beat the seafarers while they are on the phone with the family members, as a way of increasing the distress at home so that pressure can be put on the company to continue to negotiate.

In [a related] study we did that was released in 2016, we surveyed a bunch of former hostages as well as non-hostages about their experiences. What we found was that serious and systemic abuse was nearly 100 percent, and 87 percent of the people that we talked to were threatened with death or execution. Fifty-eight percent were physically beaten, 26 percent saw somebody else killed, and 25 percent were seriously injured themselves. Then, you had more esoteric or serious forms of abuse, like people being hung overboard by their tied hands or arms, which is a very old torture method.

Oceans Deeply: Once these seafarers get back home, what are their typical symptoms of PTSD?

Seyle: Every individual’s experience is going to be a little bit different. Let me draw a distinction – it is very difficult for anybody to go through a traumatic event and it not to have some impact on their life – some kind of cluster of post-traumatic stress symptoms. The thing that makes PTSD different … is that there are usually more of these symptoms and they last longer. PTSD is not technically diagnosable until six months after the event.

For the people who have more serious symptoms, we do see substance abuse. You see challenges controlling anger. You see depression. You see a lot of fear and resignation about going back to sea, and people feeling like, if they go back to sea bad things may happen.

One thing that is important to note, though, is that you also see people who have recovered fully – who just want to get back to their jobs, but are being treated by their coworkers or their community or their industry as if they must have PTSD.

We had a guy tell us that his crew mates weren’t comfortable with him on board the ship because he had been a hostage and they were sure that he was going to snap. This “Rambo” story of PTSD, where people are just waiting to be violent, has been really damaging to a lot of people. Seventy-five percent of the hostages recovered without lasting symptoms. Even if that [Rambo] myth were real – and it’s not – it wouldn’t apply to almost everybody, but a lot of people are being treated as if it does.

Oceans Deeply: How is the industry dealing with the issue of PTSD, given that your study found 25 percent of seafarers who were held hostage do experience symptoms?

Seyle: I feel like most major companies are being thoughtful and proactive in providing support to seafarers who are held hostage. I do think that all of the major seafarers’ welfare organizations – the Seamen’s Church Institute, the Sailors’ Society, the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme at [the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network] – all of these programs are aware of behavioral health issues, and they all have programs in place to support it.

The maritime industry is a really dangerous industry – people know that. But what I don’t think people appreciate is that when you have somebody who has survived something [like] an industrial accident or a grounding or a fire – any of these traumatic events at sea are going to have a lasting impact on some subset of their crews.

I think that the first major ship-owning group that really identifies this and effectively trains their crews to understand the risks and behavioral impacts – I predict that that will show an impact on their bottom line in terms of their efficiency or effectiveness. There is a lot of research which shows that untreated post-traumatic stress leads to poor workplace performance.

Oceans Deeply: In the paper you mention that training on how to deal with a piracy attack can help reduce the risk of PTSD afterward. Why?

Seyle: There is a good body of research in the disaster PTSD community which shows that one of the things that reduces the impact of traumatic events is prior training. Many seafarers are required to take predeparture training. The majority of this is based on practical skills – here is how to use the fire hose to ward off pirates. One of the things that was a good predictor of whether people are going to have lasting problems was the degree to which they felt out-of-control during a traumatic experience. When you give people concrete things to do – even things like hide your valuables, it helps them feel more in control during the event itself.

The problem with this is that we’re asking people afterward what they felt of the effectiveness of something a long time ago. It might be that people who feel OK say, “Hey, that training worked really well.”

Oceans Deeply: Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Seyle: At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if those PTSD symptoms are from piracy or from industrial accidents. There are issues that these seafarers are carrying around and they have to deal with, and I think that the maritime industry should be thinking in a systemic way about how to address this – not just in the context of piracy, but in the broader context as well.

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