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Where are we with mental health at sea?

March 18, 2019
D14-Jerome-Adrian-Betita
© Jerome Adrian Betita

The shipping industry is in an interesting position when it comes to the mental health of seafarers. As things currently stand, there has perhaps never been more attention given to the issue of how seafarers feel with regards to their wellness and emotional wellbeing.

If you search the term “Seafarer mental health” online, you get a fascinating list of headings. There is talk of the matter being 'taboo', there are a slew of guidelines including our own ISWAN guidance, an information repository and a series of 'Dos and Don’ts'.

These have now been joined by the new Seafarers Mental Health and Wellbeing film from KVH Videotel, which we were very pleased to support and help to develop. This excellent resource can be accessed for free at www.videotel.com/seafarerwellbeing.

These all make for a very positive foundation on which to build our collective industry efforts. However, it is vital that all these efforts combine to ensure we are actually fixing the issues, not merely highlighting the problems. We need to be sure that any seafarer who is fatigued, depressed, suicidal, or who is feeling that they can’t cope can get the help they need.

MITIGATE THE RISKS

We also need to do all possible to try to mitigate the risks to mental health in the first place. The challenge now is to translate the attention and investment of effort into actually making sure life is better for seafarers, and that those who need help can get it.

The fact that there is so much information available on the issue, that there is so much guidance, and that so many organisations are involved in trying to find solutions is good. Anything that shows care and compassion for crews has to be positive.

It is now necessary for the industry to translate these concepts into workable solutions, management standards and means of ensuring that all shipping companies do the right thing by their seafarers.

Currently, as is the norm in shipping, it is a vanguard at the top of the industry who are trying to develop solutions and to help their people to manage their mental health. What are the lessons that other companies can learn and apply? What are the practical solutions to this very real problem?

© David Jose

WHAT CAN SEAFARERS DO?

One of the key messages to seafarers is that they should try to break away from negativity. Doing enjoyable activities, building your sense of achievement and purpose, and getting quality rest, food and exercise will all help build a solid foundation for wellbeing.

It is important to remember that everyone on board has a responsibility to everyone else. It is important to recognise the signs of stress and anxiety in yourself and others – spotting the typical signs like people slowing down, getting irritable, or disengaging. Seeing the changes is vital, and then being able to rally around and provide support or direct those who may be suffering to the right help and support.

There are a whole host of steps which can be taken on board, and much of the focus of the current guidance is on that aspect. The key steps to encourage seafarers to act to improve their own mental health and wellbeing at sea would be to do the following:

  1. Do more of what makes you happy
  2. Keep learning new skills
  3. Connect with people
  4. Give to others
  5. Be physically active
© Noel Agustin Gabrido

COMPANY ACTIONS

It is not just at sea where the battle to improve mental health must be fought. It is vital that companies look at the way they conduct themselves and see where they can perhaps change or adapt to help seafarers. Amongst the guidance in the industry, here are some key aspects that companies should consider:

  • Designate senior staff ashore to be responsible for the company mental health at sea policy
  • Talk about mental health, ask questions, start a dialogue in the office ashore and at sea
  • Review the various industry guidelines, and see which elements best fit the company and which will be likely to deliver the best results
  • Develop positive company policies for mental health and wellbeing based on the guidance, or the parts which best apply
  • Understand where the problems are, perhaps ask for honest, anonymous feedback from seafarers
  • Appreciate that this is not solely about seafarers; there is a role for office staff too. They should be encouraged to think of mental health issues and not shy away from discussing them
  • Act on the findings. Develop solutions. Commit to positive change – even if there is cost. Budget for better mental health!
  • Make sure every seafarer knows who they can turn to. Ensure they have the contact details of SeafarerHelp and they can contact them to talk or ask for advice. See seafarerhelp.org for details
  • Provide mental health and wellbeing training, advice and guidance
  • Ensure that all seafarers know what they should do if they feel their own mental health suffering, or if they spot it in colleagues
  • Give those with mental health issues support, and those who are worried reassurance
  • Take away any stigma from the issue. Ensure that there is a culture of support, acceptance and assistance, and that jobs are not under threat if someone is suffering or feeling the signs of anxiety, negativity, depression or helplessness descending on them
  • Understanding that there is no single problem or solution. Making sure that seafarers know the company view, that there is a team approach, and that any suffering or problems at sea will be supported
  • Talking about the problem and about having an explicit policy of doing all possible to alleviate problems is vitally important
  • Ensure that seafarers make their families aware of the problems of communicating at sea, and the need for them to try and insulate their seafaring loved ones from undue stress
© Cihancan Tunay

CONSTANT CHALLENGES

There are constant challenges on a ship. Ships are unique, it is not just a workplace, but a home too. It can be hard to separate the two, and so seafarers can experience loneliness and isolation. Being disconnected from home and families can take its toll.

How then, can we make life at sea enjoyable? It is not enough to subject mariners to merely bearable conditions. Seafarers need to thrive and flourish. It is vital to pay attention to health, happiness and the whole experience of living and working at sea.

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