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Coronavirus and seafarer mental health – the good news

There’s no vaccine against poor mental health, writes Johan Smith from Sailors’ Society.

As so many have said, we live in unprecedented times. First, we have been confronted with a physical health crisis, followed by a hard-hitting economic crunch. So it’s no surprise that we now face the stark reality of a possible mental health crisis.

We don’t have to research academic journals to recognise the strain the pandemic has put on our mental health; we just have to reflect on our own anxieties and experiences over the last year. Being locked up, isolated, socially distanced, uncertain and anxious is a reality we are now all too familiar with. As a result, mental health issues have been catapulted into the spotlight like never before.

For seafarers, these conditions are nothing new. Life at sea can feel like an extreme version of lockdown, where crews are confined to a ship for months on end, unable to even see their loved ones face to face. Based on the rise in calls to the Sailors’ Society helpline and seafarers expressing anxiousness and sadness, it is evident that the mental health of seafarers has further deteriorated during the pandemic. But it is also true that the pandemic has highlighted a problem for our industry that is as old as the industry itself.

For the last 11 years, the Wellness at Sea programme has been advocating a holistic approach to seafarer training, while emphasising the importance of mental health support. A new PHD research report, from the Rhodes University in South Africa, confirms the impact Wellness at Sea is making in the industry. Researcher Lauren Brown conducted the analysis with two groups of crew. One had attended a Wellness at Sea workshop over the last two years and was part of a Wellness at Sea peer support programme, while the other had not attended any kind of training on wellness or mental health.

Two specific aspects of the report are encouraging and confirm the testimonials we have received from seafarers over the last decade. Firstly, nearly 10% fewer seafarers who had taken part in Wellness at Sea reported feeling anxious or worried at work compared to those who had not attended any wellness training (43.1% vs 52.8%), while 14% fewer of the wellness-trained crew reported feeling sad at work (27% vs 41.2%).

Secondly, it shows that the programme is significantly changing and challenging perceptions and stereotypes of mental health. Seafarers who had been through Wellness at Sea showed a better understanding of mental health and were less likely to stigmatise mental illness. For example, 9% agreed with the statement “I would be embarrassed if a person in my family became mentally ill”, versus 50% of the comparison group, while 26.8% of the trained seafarers were embarrassed by the term “psychological disorder”, versus 55.6% of the comparison group.

So, where are we as an industry? To purposefully answer this question, it’s worth going back in history and reflecting on the development of the Wellness at Sea programme.

In 2010, Wellness at Sea was a first of its sort in the maritime industry: a comprehensive, holistic training programme to support mental health. I vividly remember a speaking engagement in London in 2011, where a representative from a company challenged me, saying that mental health and wellbeing was beyond their scope of responsibility. The topic of wellbeing was a new concept and, as one commentator described it back then, often seen as “nancy pancy stuff seafarers don’t care for”. What followed was a slow and tedious period of pushback.

But then some early adopters saw the perceived benefits and got onboard. This slowly built awareness and more role players got curious. The early majority, who are mainly pragmatists, are now following suit as there is increased evidence on how wellbeing can increase productivity and ultimately influence the bottom line.

While the pandemic has taken its toll on seafarer mental health, it has also offered hope for the future, by pushing us to a tipping point where the importance of wellbeing cannot be denied. As more and more research is done, like the study above, the conservative late adopters will join in, the laggards will eventually throw in the towel and join the choir as they recognise the vital importance of seafarer wellbeing to our industry.

Yes, a lot needs to be done, but we have come a long way.

Comments

  1. This programme would seem to empower seafarers to endure the factors which contribute to and in fact cause the depression that seamen can experience today working on modern ships. What is remarkable is that there was no need for such a course when ships were smaller, much more user friendly, and where the shipboard organization was a community which sustained mental health.
    Before box-boats the ships were smaller, had a large deck area, a crew of up to 60, and long turnarounds in port. So seafaring became a complete experience. Today, on these enormous ships there have 20-25 crew, no deck space to walk on, and very little social interaction except at meal-times. Some watches never meet another human-being for days. I especially mark out the 12-4 “Graveyard” watch. At most a deckhand-lookout keeps this watch with the 2/0 on the bridge. The engine room will be unmanned, so after his watch the 2/0 will have nobody to talk to before going to bed. On ships with crews of up to 60 there were 2 seamen to a watch, and an engineer to sink a beer with after the watch. Little pleasantries like these have been wiped out by modern shipping. And why? Because the shareholders of the shipping lines are too greedy to allow for a decent life for the “cheap” crews they employ and makes them rich. The accommodation, instead of being the focus of the shipboard community, is usually deserted, and encased stair towers and air conditioning have eliminated the normal social sounds of a shipboard community. Of all the Manning models, today’s ships barely provide an “Emergency Manning” level. How does a crew of 20 cope with a major fire? I imagine they don’t, and just take to the boat.
    The solution to the depression and mental problems this course is designed for is to increase Manning levels, not send them on a course to help them somehow endure the isolation on modern ships. This course is just another that really attempts to “cool out” the seafarer, and not to fix the problem. The course goes no way to resolving the isolation and the lack of ‘role switching” that is fundamental to everyday life. I can say l am heartily sick of these gad-fly courses arranged by universities who can get funding from the industry to achieve industries aims, which is to keep the crews on board for as long as possible, pay them as little as possible, and work them to the bone. Let’s have no more of these courses. Let’s force shipowners to adequately man their ships, allow them to go ashore in port, pay and feed them properly and shorten their tours of duty even more. I used to go away for up to 18 months, working on a small cargo ship with a huge crew, spending 75% of the time in port. We smuggled, disappeared for days and had relationships ashore, etc. It was a great life and l never wanted to leave. But there’s no way l’d go to sea on the “Ever Given” or a similar ship. I have fantastic memories of life before box boats. I went for the adventure. Nowadays the ship are usually a long way from town, at a remote loader on the edge of a desert, or at a remote container pier. Box boats ruined seafaring.

    1. Great comments, Colin.

      Interesting to see the crew and/or Ecdis being blamed as contributors to ‘unseaworthiness’. I remember a trip sortly before coming ashore, and just to allow the ship to shift berth, I had to fill out 7 separate logbooks and 2 checklists, on my own, in a few minutes. How can minimum safe manning documents not be seen as criminal, when class insists that cruise liners need 2 watchkeepers to properly conduct a watch on a modern bridge?

      These poor chaps on the Ever Given are going to be hung out to dry. I wonder if their mental state, fatigue, lockdown experiences will be mentioned? Or if the Suez Canal Authority will take reponsibility for failing to have a tug attached to such a large ship during transit, as is standard in Panama?

      Probably not.

    2. Seafaring was ruined also by ISPS.
      And then Covid 19.

      Now one would be lucky to see anyone other than one’s 18 shipmates till sign off. They really start grinding on you after a while even if they are angels.

  2. Interesting comments form the previous writers. The world is changing, it is wrong to think seafaring is the worst job, it just came into focus as COVID hit us harder. Life is more challenging today in almost every job. We don’t spend enough time educating ourselves of the skills needed today. It should start at school. The world of work has changed and global governance has tried to manage our behaviours but rules generally don’t work well. We should be empowering each other to be contributors to societies wellbeing. What is the best way to behave and improve wellness in each other. How do we show we care. Teach the skills of listening and supporting. Speak to any counsellor and they will show you what’s going wrong. I am not a shareholder, though I wish I was. Take a look at DRIVEN a system for building resilience based in Australia. go to hello driven.com. This looks at wellness and how to build resilience from a scientifically based theory that works, In fact they have just released a HART programme which means High Adversity Resilience Training designed for Military, Police, Medical and C-Suite officers. How to live and thrive in the toughest environments. Maybe even seafarers should do it. Resilience can be trained and it is probably the most important skill we should all learn if we are to thrive in this modern, fast paced world. Go take a look. Moaning about others, or institutions won’t fix anything. Be the best you can, you’ll be amazed at what you can do with a bit if training. We all have it in us and neuroscience shows us how. We are humans and we can rise above this negative narrative and train ourselves to be the best we can. At the same time we open the doors to an amazing life because this is not about being hard, its about understanding and supporting each other. Go and look, it might just change your life.

    1. Great post but so far Australia has a poor record in workplace culture.The apex institution THE PARLIAMENT has been rocked by allegations of rape, bullying, cover-up, suppression of complaints etc etc. Corporations are even worse. It is a long way to normalcy.

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