Wendy Harvey and Mark Featherstone from Svitzer UK have some useful advice on developing mental health provisions.
Mental health is one of the most important advocacy issues of modern times. In the UK alone, research by the Mental Health Foundation reveals that one in six people suffer from a common mental health problem week-to-week. Meanwhile, nearly half of all adults say that they have had a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their life.
These staggering figures show the scale of the mental health challenge today. However, in shining a light on the issue, we create the opportunity to drive awareness and make discussion about the subject more acceptable.
In shipping, we already see progress. The Mission to Seafarers, Seafarers UK and other maritime charities, alongside unions and industry associations, are now addressing the mental health of crews and shoreside staff with the importance that it deserves.
The scale of the mental health challenge within shipping may be larger than the Mental Health Foundation’s ‘one in six’ average for the UK. Residual embarrassment may drive individuals away from speaking up about how they are feeling – not to mention those seafarers who come from regions or cultures where there is even more intense scrutiny and stigma on mental health problems.
Raising awareness of these points is an important driver in destigmatising mental health across maritime. It also marries our industry to the wider public discourse – a link that we so often struggle to establish – and brings it roughly in lockstep with wider advocacy about mental wellbeing.
However, advocacy is one thing, and action is another. In the fight for better standards of mental wellbeing, we should think about what steps we can take today, rather than just focusing on long term, large-scale change.
To put this another way, mental health is a matter of respect and basic decency, rather than procedure. If you saw an elderly person struggling to cross the road, most people would step in and help, rather than dwell on any consequences to their own day. We should think about mental health in the same way when we consider our ability to respond to and support seafarers and shoreside staff.
Crews and shore staff are often under a lot of pressure, striving to work safely across long, and sometimes unsociable hours. We must work to overcome the isolation and loneliness they may be feeling and help them with the same robust support as we would if they suffered a physical injury that was impairing work.
The barrier to entry for supporting mental wellbeing is very low – it might only take five minutes of conversation to help someone at their lowest point.
The power of new technologies to instantly place resources in the hands of those that need it most should not be underestimated. Digital toolkits and 24/7 counselling networks can help to fill an important gap for those feeling isolated and alone. Meanwhile, increasing connectivity will also help to shorten the distances to family and friends at home and generally bring our industry closer together.
On a personal and conversational level, shipping can draw strength from the camaraderie and family spirit that we see across crews, particularly in the towage segment.
Historically, crews may have consisted of many generations of local families, and this has filtered down to an industry that is community minded and works to support important initiatives in our local areas. This means that a friendly ear is never too far away, even during a long voyage or during intermittent and protracted towage jobs.
Svitzer UK recently trained its first ever mental health first aiders, in recognition of the fact that mental health can be as acute and serious as physical injury, and that training is a core part of destigmatising the conversation surrounding mental illness. This is a simple change to procedure, but one that helps to build resources and understanding across the organisation.
Our sector must see its developing mental health provisions as an extension of this attitude: start small, but ensure we make a start at all.
Just as we work to share in our duty of care towards each other in terms of physical risk, we must broaden that scope to support with mental welfare.
The future of our crews and shore-based teams depends on us taking this issue seriously. We must listen more than we talk and take small but tangible steps that combine to create a network of support for those experiencing difficult times.