In an exclusive interview, Mr. Ray Barker, Head of Operations , ISWAN (International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network), explains why industry has increased its focus on seafarers’ mental health lately, referring to the major human and financial risks that could arise in case a seafarer had a mental health crisis while on duty. Mr Barker notes that industry has made significant progress on raising awareness about seafarers’ health, especially with reference to their physical health while their mental health issues need to be further addressed. Taking positive steps to reduce the number of factors that have a direct effect on the mental health of seafarers, could be the next challenge for shipping, Mr Barker acknowledges. Concluding, he suggests ways to seafarers to place wellness at sea at the centre of their attention and find a balance between their mental, physical health and their career.
SAFETY4SEA: What does ‘wellness at sea’ mean to you? What are your top 5 tips for how seafarers can look after their health and wellbeing?
Ray Barker: For me it means having an overview of the maritime industry and understanding how being part of it can affect both your physical and mental health. You can then adjust or develop your lifestyle to adapt to the changing situations and stay as physically and mentally as healthy as possible. But it’s not just about being free from illness, it’s about developing your awareness of yourself and your environment so that you can lead a healthy and fulfilling life.
S4S: There is currently an increasing focus on the importance of mental health in maritime industry. Why do you think this is?
R.B.: Over the last five years or so the maritime industry has started to recognise that seafarers are subject to a range of different factors, more so than those involved in shore based occupations, that can put them under pressure and so affect their mental health. The maritime industry has started to increase its focus on the mental health of seafarers because at the end of the day it is in their best interests. Mental health issues on board have both a financial cost and a human cost. If a seafarer has a mental health crisis on board and they have to be replaced then financial costs will be incurred in terms of replacement crew, medical expenses and possibly time delays as well. If there is a suicide on board, then there are all those costs as well as the impact it has on the morale of the remaining crew members. Shipping companies know that if you have a crew that is under too much stress then their performance is not as good as it should be and that this reduced performance could, in the worst case scenario, potentially put the ship at risk. This would be a major financial risk and could even involve the death of other seafarers. There are therefore some very sound financial reasons why shipping companies should invest in looking after the mental health of seafarers. In addition it sends a very positive message to the crew that the ship owners are interested in their health and welfare and so they are more likely to be able to attract and retain good quality crew who are well motivated and have a positive outlook on the company.
Shipping could ensure that all companies have proactive and positive mental health policies so that the stigma of having and talking about mental health issues is reduced
S4S: Tell us a few words about your organization’s helpline – SeafarerHelp; what are the background and key drivers behind this initiative?
R.B.: SeafarerHelp is a free, confidential, multi-lingual helpline that is available to any seafarer 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, no matter what their nationality, religion, sex or sexuality. The SeafarerHelp helpline has been in existence since 2002 and has a truly global reach, it can be contacted by Telephone, Email, Live Chat, Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber, VK.com and SMS text. SeafarerHelp will try to assist any seafarer with any kind of a problem and if we cannot assist ourselves we will try and find another organisation that can. Over the last five years or so we have noticed an increasing number of seafarers contacting SeafarerHelp with mental health issues and so we have trained the team in counselling skills awareness and giving emotional support so that they can provide immediate help to those seafarers that need it. Our key driver is to be there to try and support any seafarer and their family, with any kind of a problem, where ever they are in the world, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
S4S: How happy are you with industry’s progress so far to raise awareness about seafarers’ health? Are there any issues that industry needs to further address?
R.B.: I think that some companies do very well and that others do not. Generally on physical health I think that the industry has made reasonably good progress, having said that if companies gave incentives to adopt more healthy lifestyles (Giving up smoking, losing weight, eating healthier, drinking less alcohol, keeping fit etc.) that would only be a good thing. With reference to mental health, There is a great deal of stigma around mental health so the adoption of positive policies and procedures together with effective training of officers and crew would be a good step forward, however I recognise that because of the stigma attached to mental health and mental health issues it will be some considerable time before mental health issues are discussed as openly as physical health issues.
S4S: Is the increased focus on mental health ashore changing attitudes at sea?
R.B.: The short answer is yes. I think the turning point in the UK was the soldiers returning home after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the issue of mental health, particularly PTSD started to be discussed openly. That made it easier for others to talk about mental health such as Prince Harry who spoke about his mother’s death and how it affected him and over the last 18 months or so in the UK almost every week there is a celebrity or ordinary member of the public talking openly on TV, Radio or in the newspapers about a mental health issue and how it has affected them. This has raised awareness of mental health issues generally and because people are being more open about it, it is making it an easier subject to talk about. This has in turn has made it easier for seafarers to talk about their mental health issues and has raised the profile of mental health for shipping companies as well.
S4S: Have you noticed any trend(s) during the last years with respect to seafarers’ mental and physical health?
R.B.: The SeafarerHelp helpline has received many more calls from seafarers who are reporting mental health issues and who require emotional support and sometimes formal counselling. Trends in physical health that we think have come up in the last few years are increasing reports and concerns about sexually transmitted diseases, an increased incidence of injuries at work and possibly an increased number of concerns about being overweight and heart issues.
S4S: Do you have any new projects/ plans on the agenda that you would like to share?
R.B.: We would like to open a lifestyle change service staffed by medical professionals could advise and support seafarers on such subjects as; how to stop smoking, how to lose weight, how to reduce alcohol consumption, how to get fit, how to eat healthy etc. This would be a personalised service so that each individual seafarer who signed up to it had their own personal programme which would include regular contact with our advisor to help keep the seafarer on track to meet their goal. This is a project we would like to do but we would need a sponsor to fund it.
S4S: If you had to pinpoint one defining challenge for shipping over the next 10 years, what would it be?
R.B.: To improve the mental health of seafarers by taking positive steps to reduce the number of factors that have a direct effect on the mental health of seafarers. It is the cumulative effect of a number of situations such as fatigue due to the watch system, low crew numbers, lack of shore leave, long periods away from home and family, lack of crew cohesion and harassment and bullying that tends to put seafarers under undue stress which can push them into having mental health problems. Shipping could ensure that all companies have proactive and positive mental health policies so that the stigma of having and talking about mental health issues is reduced. Such measures would hopefully reduce the numbers of seafarer suicides.
S4S: How is digital technology changing the seafarers’ role? What changes can we expect up to 2030?
R.B.: As a helpline for seafarers we are used to dealing with people and although there are concerns about how digital technology will affect their role, for us it has not yet translated into issues that seafarers are raising with SeafarerHelp. I think that seafarers are concerned that new technology, particularly drone or automated ships, will reduce the numbers of seafarers required and will make it more difficult to get a job at sea.
S4S: What is your key message to the young seamen with respect to their career and life at sea?
R.B.: Look after your mental and physical health and develop your career. Use the techniques of mindfulness to help you adopt a healthy mental attitude, develop resilience to enable you to cope with difficult issues, nurture and treasure personal relationships and friendships. From a physical health point of view do not smoke, do not become overweight, eat healthily, do not take drugs, exercise and keep fit. From a career point of view develop a series of goals and targets every three years or so that show where you want to go in your career and use continuous professional development (CPD) to get there. The setting of such goals and targets will give you a focus and help you to achieve your desired career goals.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.
Ray Barker, Head of Operations , ISWAN (International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network)
Having worked in Local Government and Charities for some 35 years, mostly in housing and business improvement, I came to ISAN (the predecessor to ISWAN) in 2011 as a consultant. Following a successful consultancy I was then recruited into the permanent position of Head of Operations in 2012 and I have been managing the SeafarerHelp team, amongst other things, ever since then.