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World Mental Health Day – Mental Health for All Seafarers

On World Mental Health Day, ISWAN’s Project Manager Caitlin Vaughan discusses ISWAN’s latest initiatives to protect and improve the mental health of seafarers and how they fit with this year’s theme: ‘Mental Health for All: Greater Investment – Greater Access’.

The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day is ‘mental health for all’, which could be good news for seafarers – an often-forgotten workforce. As COVID-19 continues to negatively impact seafarers, with an estimated 400,000 stranded on vessels around the world, many of us working within the maritime industry have become increasingly concerned about the damaging effects of extended time on board, as well as complications with repatriations and financial concerns of those who have become unexpectedly unemployed.

Organisations that exist to improve the lives of seafarers continuously highlight how the essential work of seafarers and the challenges they face on a daily basis are largely invisible to the wider population. This is evident through the crew change crisis and the extreme efforts needed to ensure governments do all they can to prevent the challenges seafarers have been facing despite the necessity of their job. On a subtler level, much of the straightforward advice that exists to promote psychological wellbeing can’t apply to seafarers. Across social media and therapeutic platforms, for example, we see never-ending references to the importance of ‘self-care’ and taking time out when we need it, but what exactly does ‘self-care’ mean for seafarers who can’t simply go for a walk or pick up the phone to a loved one?

The latest statistics from ISWAN’s 24-hour helpline, SeafarerHelp, show the top issues reported by seafarers include financial difficulties (as a direct result of the pandemic), repatriation issues, mental and physical health concerns, unpaid wages and bullying and harassment. Likewise, The Mission to Seafarers’ latest Happiness Index report ‘shows the continuing decline of happiness at sea, largely due to the inability of seafarers to sign off and return home. Heavy workloads, virus fears and a perceived lack of COVID-19 precautions on board vessels are exacerbating the decline in satisfaction.’ Against this backdrop, it may appear that self-care is best reserved for the shore-based population who do not have to face the complexities of a life at sea. In fact, it’s regularly argued that if we tackle the structural problems that seafarers are facing, mental health problems at sea will be much less of a worry. While it remains essential we continue to fight for the best possible working conditions for seafarers – which undoubtedly impact mental health – it’s important we don’t undermine the need to promote positive mental wellbeing for all; and highlighting effective self-care techniques for seafarers is a central part of that. We all have mental health in the same way we have physical health and no one would suggest that physical illness only affects people working in poor conditions.

However, in recognition that even the best self-care techniques can’t make up for a problematic work environment, and that shipping companies should be investing in the mental health of their employees, ISWAN has produced a new guide – Mentally Healthy Ships. This guide, due to be published later this month, provides useful information for shipping companies on how best to devise and implement mental health policies and practices to promote positive mental health on-board. It is written by Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Pennie Blackburn and will complement the widely distributed self-help resources we have produced for seafarers over the past three years.

One of the vital areas this new guide pinpoints is the importance of crew cohesion to psychological wellbeing and the need for both companies and seafarers as individuals to create strong relationships on board. This particular subject is the focus of ISWAN’s Social Interaction Matters (SIM) project which launched in January of this year. The first stage of the project, which investigated the barriers and drivers of social interaction on board, led by Dr Kate Pike, is now complete. The project team is currently working closely with a number of shipping companies to move forward with phase two of the project where identified drivers of social interaction will be trialled and evaluated with seafarers on board. We look forward to sharing the full report from phase one in the next few weeks as well as regular updates on the status of company trials in the current phase.

 © Svein Helge Vikra

Proactive initiatives to prevent some of the causes of poor mental health such as those outlined above are vital but so too are 24-hour response services such as SeafarerHelp, Chat to a Chaplain and all of the essential port-based welfare work provided by charities such as The Mission to Seafarers, Sailors’ Society and Stella Maris. No seafarer – whatever their job role or sector – should be left without emergency support in times of need, which is why ISWAN is working to launch a new toolkit for superyacht crew to provide appropriate support that tackles the particular challenges of the sector. Yacht Crew Help is due to be launched this month and aims to address many of the recommendations in ISWAN’s 2018 research, which found that 82% of yacht crew had experienced low morale ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ or ‘always’ and nearly 40% had experienced difficulties accessing mental health support. In the first instance, the toolkit will focus on providing 24-hour emotional support through ISWAN’s helpline team and self-help resources with the aim of continuing to provide useful guidance on other areas identified in the research report over time.

It’s true that the industry as a whole has much more work to undertake to effectively protect the mental health of seafarers. This includes working to reduce widespread stigma, addressing the gaps in knowledge surrounding suicide at sea and promoting the benefits of properly investing in seafarers’ mental health. Let’s hope that the strong messages in this year’s theme resonate with the key influencers of seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing.

For further information about the upcoming Mentally Healthy Ships guide, sign up to our e-news here. Join the mailing list for our SIM Project here and receive updates on Yacht Crew Help by signing up at www.yachtcrewhelp.org.