WORKING at sea can be a lonely affair. Seafarers are often subjected to months away from home, friends and families in relative seclusion. It is perhaps unsurprising that in such an environment, issues of stress, anxiety and psychological trauma are commonplace. Indeed, the statistics are alarming.

Research from Yale University and charity the Sailors’ Society in 2018 revealed that more than a quarter of seafarers suffered from depression, while a survey last year, conducted by Yale once more, in conjunction with the International Trade Federation Seafarers’ Trust, showed 20% had either considered suicide or attempted suicide. Fortunately, the shipping industry is waking up to this all-too-common affliction amid increasing social and cultural awareness on the issues surrounding mental health and its repercussions.

Blue Monday

On the day of writing this article, January 20, it is the aptly named ‘Blue Monday’. The third Monday of January is said to be the ‘most depressing’ day of the year, as the reality of ordinary working life dawns with the festive season and New Year celebrations are well and truly over

Bleak as it is, Blue Monday is an example of how we as a society are starting to get to grips with mental health — or at least beginning to understand its severity. Several organisations from within the shipping industry marked the occasion with a timely reminder of seafarers’ susceptibility to mental health-related illnesses.

This included Nautilus International, which, along with the union RMT and the UK Chamber of Shipping, has previously issued guidelines for shipping companies on how to adopt policies to protect the mental wellbeing of seafarers. Yet this is exemplative of an increasingly tactile response from the wider shipping community. Although there is still plenty of work to be done in tackling the issue of mental health, the fact the industry is recognising the problem is a major plus point.

The International Maritime Organization too has been increasingly pro-active. Mental health will be one of the core themes addressed during this year’s Day of the Seafarer — a day co-ordinated by the IMO to celebrate and recognise the contribution of seafarers globally, which, in 2020, falls on June 25.

Further, the IMO will be holding a sub-committee on ‘human element training and watchkeeping’ earlier the same month, when, once again, mental health will be high on the agenda. The UK P&I Club’s crew health programme director Sophia Bullard explained to Lloyd’s List how the issue of mental health is finally getting the attention it deserves. Ms Bullard said more and more of its members are approaching the club asking questions about mental health, requesting information about what help is available and best practice for preventative measures to ensure crew are healthy and happy on board.  This, she said, could be anything from ensuring seafarers are vetted beyond their traditional physical health screening to shipowners seeking advice on the best way forward following a suicide or attempted suicide on board a vessel.

The UK P&I Club has been at the vanguard of raising the profile of mental health issues in recent years, working closely with charities, including the Sailors’ Society, Mission to Seafarers and Human Rights at Sea, campaigning for greater seafarer protection, providing sponsorship, encouragement and PR support for their various initiatives. Indeed, the support of charities has been integral in creating mental health awareness — but, more importantly, the care and assistance seafarers need. Although some shipowners are making significant strides, adopting in-house training and HR programmes, others evidently are failing their crew.

No Mental Health Policies

A recent survey conducted by Cardiff University, as part of research funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, showed that 55% of employers polled admitted they had not introduced any policies or practices to address mental health for a decade or more. Thankfully, charities are helping to plug this gap.

One such initiative the UK P&I Club has helped get off the ground is the Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea programme. Launched in 2015, the programme is a holistic approach to tackling the issue of mental health, coaching seafarers to think about their own wellness in five key areas: social, emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual.

The Sailors’ Society’s deputy chief executive Sandra Welch explains this comprehensive face-to-face programme is available for seafarers before deployment, but also training is on offer for employers, who can relay teachings to crew members in the future. In addition, seafarers can access an e-learning course, providing 20 hours of training on the five areas underpinning the programme.

The e-learning tool is also downloadable as a mobile app, while UK P&I Club members can access the training for free. “It is a journey companion they can take with them, which both empowers and entertains users, with plenty of resources they can access and helpful information on where to get help,” says Ms Welch.

WeCare Programme

Fellow UK-based charity Mission to Seafarers also offers a training programme known as WeCare, which the UK P&I Club also helped develop and has continued to lend its support. WeCare addresses not only the crew’s mental health but also seafarers’ families, offering guidance on how best to contact crew while on the ship. Internet connectivity — and with it access to emails and social media — ensures seafarers can stay in contact with loved ones and up to date with life and events back home. Access to the internet is now a must among crew.

A recent survey by Hamburg-based crewing specialist Danica found that as many as 80% of seafarers who do not have online access would change jobs. Naturally, engagement with friends and family while at sea via online social channels and networks can be of considerable comfort — but it can also have the opposite effect, making seafarers feel even more isolated.

As WeCare project manager Thomas O’Hare explains, having this access can make you dependent on wanting to receive affirmation from home that everything is OK — and vice versa. “At first, this can be a good thing for seafarers and those who are used to it; but then after a while, homesickness becomes a much more prominent thing,” Mr O’Hare tells Lloyd’s List. This online connection can also bring added pressures from home. It creates a channel for those dependent on a seafarer’s wages — which often extends beyond close family — to relay their wants and needs, or share information that an individual may find difficult to process or manage while at sea.

“So, for instance on social media, we’ve talked to the seafarers and their families about what are the best ways to communicate, what are the best words/phrases to use, and what’s the best way to form a conversation,” adds Mr O’Hare. The WeCare programme also offers bespoke advice on how to discuss financial issues. “There may be an instance where 100% of your ship money has been spent by the family for an emergency. I mean, how will you deal with that? What methods can be put in place before you are deployed to safeguard yourself in this scenario?”

Internet Access Onboard

Having internet access on board also restricts time to mingle and interact in the mess with fellow crew members during non-work hours. Whereas breaks were previously a much more social affair, often crew spend spare time locked in their cabins speaking to friends and family at home, on Skype, Facebook or via email. These, though, are just a handful of examples of the help on offer for seafarers. There is more — and it is worth reiterating the work undertaken by charities is admirable.

However, as Mr O’Hare states, there is plenty of scope to ensure seafarers suffering from depression, anxiety or other forms of mental illness can get the support and care they need. He is also concerned that some ship operators do not freely promote the help on offer as best they could.

Not on my Watch and SeafarerHelp

Having been on board several ships during his time with the Mission for Seafarers, Mr O’Hare was surprised to learn that SeafarerHelp, a 24-hour telephone helpline service offering free and impartial advice, was unbeknown to crew. “I find it strange that these types of support networks aren’t advertised more widely,” he says. Ms Welch echoes these sentiments. Although she stresses that the industry has made significant strides in tackling the issue since she joined the industry six years ago — when shipping was essentially “doing nothing” — seafarers still require more guidance on the issue. That is why she is so passionate about the Sailors’ Society’s campaign Not On My Watch, which is central to the work the charity is carrying out on the subject of mental health.

The campaign began after Ms Welch came across a photo of a young seafarer who had hanged himself off the side of the ship. The harrowing image struck a chord with Ms Welch. This was not something she could ignore. “I was really upset. Somebody loved this guy, whether his mother, his wife, kids, or someone else… but if there had been people able to help him, this could have been entirely preventable.” Off the back of the incident, a  campaign was launched for wellbeing/mental health training to become compulsory before seafarers are deployed at sea, in a similar vein to physical health checks. The Sailors’ Society is calling on the UN’s International Labour Organization to make this procedure mandatory.

So far, the campaign has received around 3,000 signatories. However, Ms Welch says that despite the ILO being open to the idea, if it is to gain traction, then backing from other organisations, unions and industry stakeholders is a must. Nevertheless, it is campaigns and initiatives such as these that continue to educate the industry on what remains a sensitive issue — which, it must be remembered, encompasses a vast spectrum of conditions.

There is no one quick or easy fix. Mental health research and preventative measures are therefore vital to help struggling seafarers. Yet it should not be forgotten that the mental wellbeing of crew is also beneficial to employers.

For seafarers, it is key to get the message out that there is help available, and that it’s okay not to be okay. We’re only human, after all. This article is part of a special report on Crew Training and investing in shipping’s next generation to be published online soon source : Lloydslist