Seafarers’ mental wellbeing and welfare in ports addressed at events in Mumbai

December 11, 2019
1b Seminar delegates

On 18 – 20 November 2019, ISWAN held a series of events in Mumbai around seafarers’ welfare, particularly mental wellbeing, and the benefits of port welfare committees.

The week began with ISWAN's AGM and Members’ Meeting on 18 November. ISWAN is a network of international organisations committed to improving the welfare of seafarers, and its members include shipping companies, unions, insurance groups and welfare organisations. The meetings focused on ISWAN’s achievements in the previous year and the challenges ahead for seafarers. For more information, ISWAN’s 2018-19 Annual Review is available here and details on how to become a member can be found at

On 19 November, ISWAN brought together an exciting line-up of international speakers for its 2019 Seminar, themed: ‘Working together to protect and promote the mental wellbeing of seafarers’. The Chief Guest at the seminar (and the workshop the following day) was Brandt Wagner, Head of Transport and Maritime Unit at the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The first session, led by Chair of ISWAN Per Gullestrup, set the scene by looking at the scale of the problem of mental wellbeing at sea. Sophia Bullard, Director of the Crew Health Programme at UK P&I Club, provided a comprehensive overview of industry statistics relating to seafarers’ mental health and discussed the huge financial implications of serious health incidents on board. She highlighted the constructive measures companies can take, including developing mental health policies and investing in training. Jason Zuidema, Executive Director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association and General Secretary of the International Christian Maritime Association, discussed the shift in terminology from ‘welfare’ to ‘wellbeing’ over the past few years and pointed out how it has helped bring into focus a crucial need for seafarers – human contact, a central part of a port chaplain or ship visitor’s job. Finally, Dr. Asif Altaf, Wellbeing Coordinator at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), presented the findings of the recent study by Yale University which identified potentially dangerous levels of depression, anxiety and suicide risk among the world’s seafarers. He said that there is plenty of evidence to show seafarers may be more vulnerable to mental health issues than the general population ashore, and there are many opportunities for the industry to make improvements in this area.

Session 1 speakers: (L to R) Per Gullestrup, Sophia Bullard, Jason Zuidema and Dr. Asif Altaf

Session 2 gave seminar delegates the opportunity to learn from approaches by other sectors to tackle mental health problems amongst their workers. Dr. Sujata Naik, Chairperson at Tolani Shipping and Vice Chairperson at INSA, led the session and discussed the parallels between working in medicine and working at sea. Jorgen Gullestrup, Chief Executive Officer of MATES in Construction, showed how his organisation has helped to tackle the alarming rates of suicide in construction industry in Australia. Dr. Santosh Loganathan, Additional Professor of Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health And Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), presented research by NASA that has made a difference to the challenges experienced by astronauts and examined programmes that have made a positive impact on the working lives of submarine crew and miners. The importance of social cohesion was a running theme throughout the session – Surgeon Commander Puneet Khanna, Classified Specialist (Psychiatry) in the Department of Psychiatry at INHS Asvini, Mumbai, talked about suicide prevention methods employed by the Indian Navy, including buddy systems and 24-hour helplines. The session was concluded by Psychiatrist Dr. Harish Shetty who discussed the importance of reducing stigma and encouraging open conversations about mental health. He advocated for more high-profile ‘mental health soldiers’. The session’s discussions identified that many parallels can be drawn with other sectors in terms of the challenges faced by their workforces, and there are lots of examples of positive actions that can be applied within the shipping industry.

Session 2 speakers (L to R) with ISWAN's Chirag Bahri: Dr. Sujata Naik, Surgeon Commander Puneet Khanna, Jorgen Gullestrup, Dr. Santosh Loganathan and Dr. Harish Shetty

In Session 3, speakers addressed how women, young seafarers and other minorities on board are affected by social isolation and what can be done about it. Brandt Wagner of the ILO chaired the session. He introduced the topic and referred to the recent ILO Sectoral Meeting on the Recruitment and Retention of Seafarers and the Promotion of Opportunities for Women Seafarers. Sumiit Sharma, President of WISTA India, discussed the impact of sexual harassment of women at sea and the importance that this is taken seriously by companies. She showed parts of the hard-hitting video by Swedish seafarers ‘Anchors Aweigh’, illustrating the devastating impacts of harassment on board. Archana Sangal, Director of MariArch, pointed out the peer support offered by the International Women Seafarers Foundation she represented and gave first-hand accounts of her achievements as an Engineer at sea. Finally, Dr. Malini Shankar, IAS, Former Secretary and Director General of Shipping, Government of India, talked about the issue of cadets and suicide and her experiences of this while in government. Final comments and questions from the floor emphasised the need to ensure there is better support in place for seafarers who may be more vulnerable to social isolation on board.

Session 3 speakers (L to R) with ISWAN's Chirag Bahri and Dr. Peter Swift: Brandt Wagner, Sumiit Sharma, Dr. Malini Shankar, IAS, and Archana Sangal

The final topic for discussion was how members of the maritime industry can work together to find solutions and share best practices for seafarers’ mental wellbeing. Rajesh Tandon, Global Director of V.Group, expanded on what companies can do, discussing the holistic approach taken by V.Ships. He concluded that ongoing medical examinations would help better support seafarers in addition to the Pre-Employment Medical Examination. He also discussed the importance of developing a focused programme that encourages, supports and monitors seafarers’ physical and psychological health and wellbeing. Dr. Asif Altaf of the ITF returned to the stage to discuss the efforts of the ITF and its affiliate unions as an example of what trade unions can do to improve the wellbeing of seafarers. This included the ITF Wellbeing app and the National Union of Seafarers of India’s 24/7 helpline ‘Sahara’ and wellbeing training. Capt. K. N. Deboo, Director and Principal at Anglo-Eastern Maritime Training Centre in Mumbai, highlighted three areas in which training institutions can make a difference: pre-sea training on preparedness, debriefing on return from sailing and leadership training for senior officers. Looking at what individual seafarers can do, Capt. Nandakumar Kottekal of A. P. Moller Singapore stressed the importance of creating an onboard environment where seafarers feel at home and comfortable. He discussed some recommendations including celebrating birthdays on board, sharing different national dishes and looking out for your fellow crew if you notice they don’t quite seem themselves.

Session 4 speakers (L to R) with ISWAN's Chirag Bahri, host Priyanka Saini and Dr. Suresh Idnani (far right): Rajesh Tandon, Capt. Nandakumar Kottekal, Capt. K. N. Deboo and Dr. Asif Altaf

Summing up at the end of the seminar, ISWAN Trustee Michael Pinto reiterated that mental illness is not as easy to see as physical illness, so seafarers and those who work with them need help to be able to identify the early warning signs (more information about ISWAN’s Mental Health Awareness Training for the Maritime Industry can be found here). He emphasised that the shipping industry needs to tackle the sense of shame felt by many about mental illness, and the fear that many seafarers hold of seeking help through employers in case they are penalised. Finally, he pointed out that it takes courage to admit to mental illness or ask for support and suicide is a call for help, so early intervention is crucial to prevent seafarers from reaching this point.

ISWAN’s events in Mumbai concluded with a workshop from its International Port Welfare Partnership (IPWP) programme on 20 November, entitled ‘Port Welfare Committees – Can they be an Indian Success Story?’. Delegates heard about the programme’s objectives and how port welfare committees (PWC) support seafarers’ welfare in ports around the world, with Kandla PWC used as a case study. In groups, the delegates then discussed how to plan for the establishment of PWCs. Read more about this event here.

Delegates at the IPWP Workshop on 20 November

ISWAN would like to thank the following event sponsors and supporters for making the 2019 Seminar possible:

Platinum Sponsor: UK P&I Club

Silver Sponsors: HSBC Bank India; Maersk Line India; Maritime Union of India; MMS Maritime (India); NUSI/ITF Trust for Indian Seafarers; Scorpio Group; Synergy Group

Bronze Sponsors: Anglo-Eastern; Bernard Schulte Shipmanagement; Blue Shield Medical Clinic; GEM SHIPPING; Northern Marine Management

Supporters: Campbell Shipping; Dynacom; Elite Mariners; Marex Media Pvt Ltd; Maritime Association of Shipowners, Shipmanagers and Agents (MASSA); The Marshall Islands Registry – India; The Mission to Seafarers; Sailor Today; Sea Bird Medicare Pvt Ltd; Seaarland; SeaMiles; Shiny Medical Centre; Sitara Shipping Ltd.

Photos from the ISWAN Seminar 2019 can be found here.

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