Breaking the taboo of seafarer mental health

Suicide rates among seafarers experiencing mental health problems have more than tripled since 2014. How can we support our seafarers before it's too late?

seafarer awareness3

A small chemical tanker is underway between Dumai in Indonesia to Port Qasim, Pakistan. An 18-year-old Korean cadet is onboard – this is his first ship and he is four weeks into a 10-month contract. That day, he disappears. The ship spends 48 hours searching the area in which it is thought he may have fallen overboard. Later, authorities conclude that suicide is a possibility. The disappearance, which happened in 2014, is one of all too many.

Suicide rates among seafarers have more than tripled since 2014, according to figures from the UK P&I Club. In 2015, suicide was cited as the cause of death in 15.3% of identified mental health cases, having risen from 4.4.% in 2014, according to the Club's internal claims system. 

Between 2001 and 2005, merchant seafarers scored the second highest level of suicides amongst all professions, after coal miners, according to research published by Swansea University in 2013. Today, the rate of suicide for international seafarers is triple that of shore workers, according to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

Cadets appear to be the most vulnerable. Of the crew suicides notified to the UK P&I Club in 2015, some 40% of those who died were cadets, although analysis of the Club’s crew illness claims shows that poor mental health can impact crew of all ages, nationalities and ranks.

“Despite such high suicide rates within the industry, seafarers' mental wellbeing is still seen as a taboo subject and a poorly discussed issue. Due to machismo cultures, high levels of prejudice and poor mental health education, crew are not always likely to seek counselling or professional support, and this often leads to serious consequences,” says Sophia Bullard, director of the UK P&I Club’s crew health programme.

“In claims presented by members, UK P&I Club analysis of crew mental health revealed anxiety, social isolation, pressure of work and disturbed sleep can all be experienced by crew. These situations often lead to an incident and sadly, in some severe cases, they even lead to the death of a seafarer,” she continues.

Confidentiality is another factor that prevents seafarers from seeking help, according to Roger Harris, executive director of the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN).  “We know from contacts on our helpline that one of seafarers’ biggest concerns is job security and confidentiality. Many refuse to share any identifiable information when they seek help because they’re so afraid of losing their job or being blacklisted,” he says.

Mental breakdowns at sea are common and can turn to violence.  In 2015, a Turkish seafarer reportedly brandished knives and an axe and threatened to set fire to wood pulp cargo being carried by the ship on which he was working. Two Chinese seafarers were murdered by a colleague on a vessel bound for the Philippines in April the same year. A cursory internet search throws up many more reported incidents; the most recent was reported in May, when a Russian seafarer was stabbed during a fight between crew. He was later airlifted to hospital.

Serious cases of mental health issues are not only traumatic for the individual but the rest of the crew too, especially in the wake of suicides and violent incidents.

“Life at sea can make seafarers more vulnerable to mental health issues, and being onboard, away from family and friends for many months, can exacerbate these problems,” explains Roger Harris. “Everyday stresses that may ordinarily be relieved by confiding in family and friends ashore can escalate at sea where seafarers may be away from their social and support networks.”

The issues that can affect seafarers’ mental health are complex, so it is perhaps unsurprising that life at sea can be a culture shock for cadets. Major concerns reported by seafarers are being distant from family; financial issues, fatigue and long hours along with increasing demands made upon them to fulfil requirements such as port state inspections and other official visits on board, according  to the UK P&I Club.

Research has also highlighted that technology can often be a hindrance, rather than a help, in creating a comfortable living environment for those working at sea. The advent of onboard Wi-Fi and handheld devices means that seafarers increasingly spend time alone in their cabins, rather than socialising with one another. What is more, increased automation on vessels has drastically reduced crew numbers, giving seafarers fewer people with whom to interact while at sea. Combined, these issues are isolating and mean that it can be difficult to keep tabs on how each person is doing.

“For many seafarers, forming relationships onboard can be difficult, and a clash of personality, language difficulties and culture types can be unavoidable.  These problems are particularly challenging when spending such long periods of time confined within a restricted space,” says Sophia Bullard.

Shipping organisations are now doing their best to talk more about mental health issues and end the stigma that is attached to them. The UK Club’s Crew Health Programme has been disseminating posters and reference guides, which include a short self-help checklist, to all the club’s members, shipowners and operators and at its approved clinics.

The Club also supports the Emotional Wellness module of the Sailors’ Society Wellness at Sea programme. The “holistic” coaching programme aims to improve seafarers’ onboard well-being, which is broken down into five aspects: social, emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual. The course is available at two levels: one programme for officers and another for cadets.

“Shipowners have a duty to ensure they are doing all they can to prevent or alleviate issues that may contribute to deteriorating mental health but it also makes good business sense: seafarers who are happy and healthy are more likely to stay at sea,” Sophia says.

ISWAN offers immediate response to seafarer calls via its 24-hour multilingual helpline, SeafarerHelp, which has recently been made available on mobile messaging service WhatsApp. Roger Harris says SeafarerHelp offers a listening service and emotional support for seafarers who need to talk through a problem, plus steps to finding practical solutions to a range of other issues that could be impacting negatively on a seafarers’ mental health, such as unpaid wages. “We also have regional representatives in India, the Philippines and Nigeria who are able to arrange face-to-face psychosocial support if required,” he adds.

ISWAN also offers guidance on why life as a seafarer can be particularly tough and isolating, plus details of how to recognise and deal with signs of poor mental health in colleagues. The guidance is included in the ‘Mental Care’ section of ISWAN’s long-running Seafarers’ Health Information Programme.

“We are about to launch some further guidance aimed at seafarers, which offers coping strategies for dealing with feelings a depression, stress or low moods while at sea,” Roger adds.

But despite all the good work that is ongoing, it remains challenging to raise seafarers’ awareness of the support services that are available to them. “We work hard to reach as many seafarers as possible but as a transient group they can be notoriously hard to reach. There are also cultural considerations that can make support hard,” says Roger. 

"Positive steps for the future must include effective education,” says Sophia. "Cadets and younger, inexperienced crew can be educated on the practicalities of life at sea along with support from other crew during their time onboard. Schemes such as ‘mentoring’ of crew may be considered if deemed helpful."

The wider shipping industry also has a role to play in normalising the perception of mental health issues and ending the social stigma attached to them. “As an industry, we must work together to promote an active dialogue between all ranks of crew and management on topics related to mental health in all areas,” Sophia continues. “Open up the discussions and get to the source of the problem so employers are aware the issues affecting their crew.”

Roger agrees: “Working together with all parts of the industry to deal with this issue will greatly improve the lives of seafarers.”

The UK Chamber encourages its members and readers to spread the word – you could save a life.

  • This article was amended on July 5th to reflect the fact that in 2015 suicide was cited as the cause of death in 15% of identified mental health cases, not of all deaths at sea that year, as stated previously. The most common causes of death at sea remains death by natural causes, followed by fatalities that arise from an accident.

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