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MHSS reports surge in calls from struggling seafarers

Charles Watkins, Managing Director Mental Health Support Solutions

Calls to Mental Health Support Services (MHSS) from seafarers who are really struggling to cope has soared by 60% in recent months, according to a recent report.

The increase in seafarers ringing MHSS’ 24/7 phone line from April to June 2021 was attributed to the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on crew members – with the situation expected to worsen in the coming months.

“During this quarter, the number of high-risk cases rose by 60% compared to the last quarter [January to March 2021],” the MHSS Quarterly Activities Report stated. “This confirms that the impact of the pandemic on mental health is increasing. We are not at the peak of the mental issues arising as a result.”

Most calls to MHSS – which provides 247 professional mental health support across the maritime sector – came from Easter Europeans, particularly those working as Masters (46.3%), followed by Asian seafarers (31.3%) in officer or ratings roles, and then Europeans (22.4%).

The report revealed that Eastern Europeans using the helpline were low-to-moderate cases, while Asians and Europeans tended to be moderate-to-severe. Issues raised during the calls included anxiety, bullying or crew conflict arising from limited experience with different cultures or nationalities.

Other findings show that young cadets who called MHSS, usually after taking the company’s coping strategy training, tended to report bullying on board.

Limited crew change was causing anger and anxiety for many seafarers, while more shipping industry office staff were contacting MHSS because of burnout or bullying by management.

Elsewhere, seafarers testing positive for Covid-19 while onboard had caused stress and anxiety for their colleagues, particularly when the person with the virus was denied permission to go ashore or to hospital.

More positively, crew members struggling with their mental health were increasingly willing to contact MHSS after initial contact between the two parties had been made, usually via WhatsApp.

“The MHSS service is being used regularly by groups traditionally considered reluctant to engage with mental health, which is a significant victory,” said Charles Watkins, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director at MHSS.

In response to its findings, MHSS made three recommendations. Firstly, all onboard and onshore staff should be trained to identify someone at risk and how to respond appropriately (including where to find additional support) to such situations.

Secondly, captains and officers should be taught positive communication skills, as the training can “enhance crew cohesion and the wellbeing of all crew members”.
“An environment with positive communication is vital for vessel safety as crew members are able to ask before making mistakes, retain focus on their tasks and respectfully challenge unsafe behaviour,” Mr Watkins said.

Thirdly, officers and onshore staff should create a culture of care with zero-tolerance for bullying and harassment. “We have created a responsive training programme – ‘Compassionate Leadership and Skilful Communication’ – which we recommend be implemented,” Mr Watkins added.

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