With the increasing awareness of the importance of the mental wellbeing of seafarers, more needs to be done to change the culture in shipping so there is more openness and less stigma about mental health.
We are seeing, quite rightfully, an increase in the interest in, and awareness of, the mental health of seafarers. Much of the growing awareness has come from the general recognition that ‘good’ mental health is just as important as good physical health. According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Thankfully, around the world, more employers, governments, unions, and civil society organisations are trying to do something about this by breaking down stigma and allocating more resources to promote mental wellbeing. In the maritime industry many ‘good’ shipping companies are also beginning to recognise this and are paying more attention to the mental wellbeing of their crews. There are extra pressures on seafarers including long voyages, separation from family and friends, lack of shore leave, smaller crews, and fatigue and these all have a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of seafarers.
A welcome initiative is the production last year of the ‘Guidelines to Shipping Companies on Mental Health Awareness’ by the UK Chamber of Shipping, RMT, and Nautilus International. These guidelines are a good place to start for any shipping, or ship management, company wishing to formulate a policy and adopt good practice on promoting good mental health for their seafarers. However, one part of the guidelines does concern me – or rather the implementation of it. The guidelines state that company’s policy on mental health should include support for staff (seafarers) who are identified as having mental health issues. The problem here is developing a culture on board and within the company where a seafarer feels confident about disclosing issues with their mental health without fear of being repatriated and losing their job – or returning home and not being able to find a new contract.
Obviously, if a seafarer is experiencing a serious breakdown or psychotic episode then they need to leave the vessel to obtain treatment. But what happens if a seafarer doesn’t disclose that they are having problems with their mental wellbeing because they are afraid of the reaction of management or senior officers on board? The danger is that they have the potential to become a risk to the safety of the vessel and crew if they have a major mental health problem or crisis on board. Even in shore-based occupations people find it difficult to disclose. I was recently speaking to a young seafarer who works on a cruise ship with a good company and he told me that the crew having mental health issues would not visit the medical staff on their ship in case that they are immediately repatriated at the next port of call. The industry has to look at the support it can give to seafarers that present with mental health conditions including allowing seafarers to sign up for new contracts when their mental wellbeing improves – after all most people do ‘get better’ and could work again at sea. For those that do have serious mental health issues and can no longer work on board, they should be supported in finding alternative shore-based employment.
The culture in the industry has to change so seafarers feel they can talk about their mental health and seek support from their employer without the risk of losing their job. Otherwise we may find ourselves having incidents where a crew and vessel are endangered because a seafarer hides their poor mental health condition and fails to carry out a critical function safely.