Time to act on mental health at sea

We need to understand the scale of the problem of mental health at sea, offer solutions and support – and take action to help struggling seafarers.

The pandemic shone a light on the essential workers keeping our world turning. Yet there were some essential workers who were very much out of sight, out of mind.

At any time, there are more than 1.4 million seafarers on the world’s waterways, delivering fuels, foods and medical supplies across the globe. Yet when the pandemic struck and countries closed borders and flights were cancelled, up to 400,000 were trapped at sea, according to figures from the International Chamber of Shipping. 

200,000 still affected by crew change crisis

Things have improved but around 200,000 seafarers are still affected by the crew change crisis as governments reintroduce border controls and travel restrictions to curb COVID-19 variants.

As maritime unions push for seafarers to be recognised as key workers to allow them free movement and ensure they are prioritised for vaccination, there’s real concern about the mental health impacts of the past year on seafarers stranded far from home, sometimes for more than 12 months, and often without pay or future job security.

Unsurprisingly, there have been reports of increased mental stress, hunger strikes, conflict and suicide.

Charles Watkins, clinical psychologist: Pandemic exacerbated existing problems

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“Shore leave is a big source of being able to replenish energy,” said clinical psychologist Charles Watkins, the managing director of Mental Health Support Services (MHSS), which provides one-to-one therapy, training and a confidential 24/7 hotline run by clinical psychologists to 5,000 ships.

“We’re seeing a lot of depression, burnout, anxiety and panic attacks because it’s a very long time to be stuck at sea, particularly for younger cadets who aren’t used to extended contracts and haven’t had the life experience to develop … coping strategies.”

Hamburg-based Watkins pointed out, however, that the past year has exacerbated issues that were already there.

IMarEST Mental Health and Wellbeing champion Captain Panos Stavrakakis agreed. “These issues were there but the pandemic really highlighted them and created a real drive to understand the problem, what’s causing it and what measures can be introduced,” he said, adding that it’s an area that suffers from a “big knowledge gap and no strong evidence base to inform policy-makers.”

“It’s clear the seafarer workplace is unique,” said Captain Stavrakakis. “Workers are isolated, they stay onboard for months, may suffer from disrupted sleep and lack of exercise. They work long hours in difficult and sometimes potentially unsafe conditions and face job insecurity. They’re living alongside crew who may have very different values, languages and cultures, so they don’t have their usual support network in place if they are struggling. In many ways, they experience a constant form of lockdown while at sea – and after last year we all understand how that can impact mental health and wellbeing.”

Some companies were already working on mental health initiatives, putting them in a good position to respond when the pandemic hit.

Christel Diepenhorst, Jumbo Maritime: Effective mental health program

“We knew the pandemic would impact the mental health of our crews so we quickly reached out to them,” said Christel Diepenhorst, HR Manager, of Netherlands-based Jumbo Maritime, which won the International Marine Contractors Association 2020 safety award for its Mind Saving Rules campaign.

“Our CEO Michael Kahn sent postcards from our sailors to their home, we sent weekly wellbeing tips via email, included highly personal stories in our internal QHSE newsletter, offered individual help and set up a specific mental health program to support our workers.”

Norman Schmiedl, Columbia Ship Management: It’s OK to ask for help

Norman Schmiedl, Group Director of Crewing at Columbia Ship Management, said crews still tend to be male-dominated, which can contribute to a reluctance to open up about mental health.

“We do training, seminars, there are posters and videos, calls from directors to the ships to raise awareness and normalise talking about mental health,” he said. “It’s about saying “it’s OK to ask for help”, which is a big change in the seafarer mindset.”

He stressed that even with crew members trained to spot mental health warning signs, it’s important to have outside expertise on call. “Sometimes, understandably, people do not want to talk to their colleagues about these issues.”

Columbia has been working with MHSS, which promotes a holistic approach to mental health, educating seafarers on how to safeguard their mental health.

It advises seafarers to stay in touch with friends and family, to stay connected with colleagues through onboard social events such as basketball, table tennis and BBQs, to eat well, take physical exercise and focus on good sleep hygiene.

“Buddying up younger cadets with older mentors can also help, giving them a chance to learn coping strategies and encourage them not to spend too much time on their own on social media,” said Charles Watkins of MHSS.  

Christian Ioannou, MCTC: Healthy diet matters

Eating well has a crucial role in physical and mental health explained Christian Ioannou, Managing Director of international catering management and training business provider, MCTC.

Christian Ioannou said: “Food… provides the body with essential nutrients which can only be obtained directly from diet. Vitamin C also lowers cortisol levels which is a stress hormone, while complex carbohydrates increase serotonin production, which is often call the happiness chemical.”

Mark O’Neil, Columbia Shipmanagement: Make mental health a priority

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Mark O’Neil, CEO of Columbia Shipmanagement and president of ship management association InterManager, which represents more than 5,000 vessels and 250,000 seafarers, said employers need to make mental health a priority. “Those companies which recognise and nurture the importance of mental health and the mental fitness of their employees will undoubtedly fare better during the pandemic and emerge stronger after it,” said O’Neil. “Companies were not aware of the correlation between mental health and performance before the pandemic, so the learning curve could not have been steeper or faster.”

Capt. Panos Stavrakakis, however, said this isn’t just a matter for individual employers. “It’s an international problem and it’s going to need international collaboration, bringing together lots of different stakeholders including the IMO, the unions and employers, to really make a difference,” said Stavrakakis, who will be chairing IMarEST’s global conference for Seafarer Mental Health & Wellbeing on May 25-26. “The conditions at work can hugely effect mental health and wellbeing and the industry needs to acknowledge this.”

Colombia is one company taking action. It has subsidised a new insurance product, ColumbiaCrewCare, which offers seafarers life insurance and an investment plan for medical costs, disability provision, pension planning, or house/car purchase from as little as €1 per day.

Such initiatives provide evidence that, whether at sea or ashore, the employer really does care about the seafarer and their family, helping to provide some peace of mind.