The theme of 2023’s World Mental Health Day, set by the World Federation for Mental Health, is ‘Mental health is a universal human right’.
t is essential to engage with maritime stakeholders to promote and address mental health for people onboard ships and ensure their well-being. In this context, the shipping industry has made strides on developing comprehensive strategies and initiatives that prioritize mental health support. On the occasion of this year’s World Mental Health day, we have asked industry experts to provide feedback on the following question:
What should the maritime industry do to align seafarers’ mental health as a human right effectively?
Capt. Ayse Asli BASAK, Partner, Maritime Innovation & Strategy, MAB Maritime & Trading LTD
To effectively align seafarers’ mental health as a human right, the maritime industry must take concrete actions. First, we need to go beyond paper regulations and focus on the real application of reduced and managed working hours. While regulations exist, their enforcement and actual impact on seafarers’ mental health should be rigorously monitored. Seafarers spend months at sea, often isolated from their families and loved ones. It’s crucial to acknowledge this inherent isolation and address it. Companies can play a pivotal role by providing additional rights and facilities to create a more sustainable life for seafarers. This includes access to mental health support, regular communication with families, and recreational facilities onboard to combat loneliness. In essence, we must bridge the gap between regulations and real-life conditions, ensuring that seafarers’ mental well-being is upheld as a fundamental human right in the maritime industry.
Doctor Saren Bongalonta-Roldan, M.D., Medical Director, Health Metrics, Inc
The recognition of good mental health and well-being of seafarers is important in the maritime industry as there is a significant difference evident between their happiness levels on board and at home. Recent-onset anxiety and depression are increasing among seafarers, and efforts to support mental health should be considered. Improvements designed to stimulate positive social interaction and good work-life balance may be implemented to improve opportunities in boosting their morale. Provision of education and support about mental health, including understanding the risk factors for poor mental health and confidential counselling services, should be made available on board.
Dr. Walther Boon, Medical Doctor and Managing Director MedAssist.online
Our seafarers deserve and have the right to the safest possible working environment – in all aspects. I think we should start to view mental health not as a separate subject, but as an integrated part of crew safety. Use the existing infrastructure -like the STCW convention- to improve awareness, to educate, to train and to certify. Like any other part of safety on board. Mental Health awareness as part of the Basic Safety course – so anyone onboard is included and it gets refreshed on a regular basis. More advanced skills can be part of the Medical First Aid/Medical Care courses. Making mental health a normal and integrated part of training, is the best way to get seafarers what they deserve: the sea as a great and safe place to work!
Elisabeth Calbari, Neuropsychology | Executive Neuroleadership Consultant, Founder Self Balance
Mental health in the maritime industry has always been of paramount importance. Yet, it has not always commanded the attention it deserves. Now, more than ever, there is a need for a more coordinated global approach and standard in order to more effectively promote seafarers’ mental health. Providing access to services, promoting a well thought-out organisational culture and developing crisis response plans are all a “must”. Regular mental health assessments, collaboration with industry stakeholders, and research efforts are also essential. By implementing these measures, the maritime industry can ensure that seafarers’ mental health is upheld as a fundamental right, leading to a safer, more efficient, and resilient workforce at sea.
Agapitos Diakogiannis, CEO, Seafair
The world must challenge the entrenched stereotype of seafarers as unyielding and tough. Seafarers grapple with unique challenges, often silently battling mental health issues. The maritime industry must ensure accessible mental health support services for seafarers, aligning their mental health as a human right. Technology, like telemedicine solutions, can play a pivotal role, in providing confidential psychological support at sea or in ports. Shipowners must foster a supportive work environment where seafarers feel safe to seek help, free from the burden of stigma and the culture of suppressing vulnerability. I’m excited to see companies like Seafair and Keelx offering digital tools that facilitate confidential interactions between seafarers & principals. Seafarers’ lives are demanding, and with 80% of sea accidents stemming from human error, the industry needs to better protect seafarers’ mental health rights.
Ondrilla Fernandes, Employment Affairs Advisor, International Chamber of Shipping
Promoting seafarers’ mental health is crucial for the well-being and safety of those working in the maritime industry. Some actions that should be taken:
- Raising awareness about the importance of seafarers’ mental health via training programs, workshops, and campaigns highlighting the importance of positive mental health for seafarers.
- Encouraging development of support networks within the maritime industry, such as peer support programs. Seafarers often spend long periods away from their families and friends, so having a supportive community onboard is crucial.
- Implementing mental health policies and guidelines prioritizing seafarer wellbeing, which should be integrated into existing safety management systems and international regulations.
- Ensuring that seafarers mental health and wellbeing is discussed when making board room decisions.
Rob Gale, Head of Training, IMEC
I think as an industry we are moving in the right direction when it comes to supporting seafarers needs both physically and mentally, but there is a lot more that can be done. At IMEC we have been implementing support networks through our Cadet Programmes right through to our Alumni once they have become qualified seafarers, to ensure that those that are at sea, at home or in training have access to some form of informal support network should they feel the need to. I think going forward the industry could utilise more formal versions of these support networks including digital helplines, and by doing so connect our seafarers with more professional support. Not only this but mandatory training in identifying the signs of mental fatigue for our seafarers would greatly help in managing this invisible threat to our industry.
Simon Grainge, Chief Executive, ISWAN
Mental health and physical health are closely intertwined. If a seafarer is fatigued or not eating properly, their mental health is likely to suffer. Likewise, if a seafarer is under prolonged mental stress, this can cause physical problems like high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping and exhaustion. We need to think about health as a whole, as the wellbeing of seafarers relies on both physical and mental health. This is not just about making legal changes, like incorporating provisions for seafarers’ mental health into the MLC – a culture change is needed within the maritime industry. When industry stakeholders begin to take a more holistic approach to seafarers’ health and wellbeing, mental health will cease to be a stigma and be recognised as an essential element of being well
Capt. Hans Hederström, Marine Consultant, Marine Consultancy Group, MCG AB
There is an urgent need to provide leadership training for both sea and shore personnel, which should make leaders aware of the importance of building TRUST on an individual basis and Psychological Safety on a team basis.
Peter Hult, CEO, VIKAND
First, we should acknowledge that the industry’s attitude toward mental health issues evolved significantly since the pandemic. That’s a great sign that progress is possible. However, operators are still focused on reactive responses. Mental health is an aspect of overall health, and as an industry, we need to stress the value of proactive investments towards healthcare. Seafarer happiness is not a cost center; it’s a long-term business investment. Operators can start with practical steps, such as actively monitoring crew mental health, investing in wellness programs that target key risk factors, offering professional support and improving environmental causes of psychological distress through leadership training, team building, social activities and more.
Kostas Katsoulieris, P&I Claims Director – Greece, NorthStandard
Although the WHO constitution states that health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing”, sadly society has until very recently treated physical and mental health very differently. In order to make mental health a human right, firstly we need to acknowledge that it is as worthy of support and treatment as physical health. Secondly any remaining societal stigma or taboo around mental health must be removed. A culture of openness about the issue as well as confidentiality (where required) should be instilled at all levels in vessels and companies to ensure trust to allow people to discuss their concerns rather than keep them bottled up or hidden for fear of seeming weak or harming their career.
Guru Prasad Kohli, Business Development Manager, Marine, AP Companies Global Solutions
Mental Health illness has been a problem among seafarers since the times of sailing ships for various reasons – Homesickness, loneliness, bullying, long working hours and long voyages.
There are certain steps the Shipping companies can take to improve mental health onboard
- First Aid and Ship Masters Medicare training must include recognition and management of Mental Health issues onboard. Psychometric testing should be part of Pre employment medicals (PEME).
- The first line of defense against mental illness onboard will always be your shipmates. Senior officers onboard should be responsible to maintain harmonious relationships onboard and provide counselling for seafarers. Provision of decent work conditions onboard, good recreation facilities and good victualling help in maintaining good morale.
- Seafarers must have access to Shore leave , Shorter tenures, Timely Relief and Internet (subsidized or free) to communicate with family.
- Seafarers should have access to helplines and trained Psychiatrists ashore to deal with mental sickness. Physical illness also leads to Anxiety and mental illness and seafarers must have access to proper medical assistance while onboard.
Dr. Christian Angelo Lubaton, Medical Director for Holistic Care, Nordic Medical Clinic
In the maritime industry, a humanistic approach to prioritize seafarers’ mental health as a fundamental right involves:
- Human-Centric Policies: Develop regulations that prioritize mental well-being and respect seafarers’ rights.
- Training: Provide mental health awareness training for seafarers and staff to foster empathy.
- Accessible Support: Offer mental health services, including counseling and telemedicine.
- Improved Conditions: Address stress factors like workload and isolation for a healthier workplace.
- Crisis Plans: Develop responsive mental health emergency plans for swift, compassionate action.
- Global Advocacy: Collaborate for global mental health standards.
- Open Communication: Establish confidential feedback channels for seafarers’ concerns.
Embracing these practices ensures a humane and supportive maritime industry, upholding seafarers’ mental health as a basic human right.
Capt. Ankur Mittal, Marine Manager, d’ Amico Società di Navigazione S.p.A.
Prioritizing seafarers mental health in maritime education and culture will foster its value as a human right and build healthier, more supportive work environments. All stakeholders must share the responsibility in this endeavor. Ship managers should establish clear mental health policies and regulations, invest in comprehensive training programs to educate crews about mental health, stress management, peer support groups and access to support services. Mental health assessments, connectivity, and support systems should be integral components of both internal and external inspections. Finally, governments, international organizations, and unions must collaborate to facilitate seafarers’ shore leave at maximum ports and recognize their mental health as a global priority, emphasizing the duty to protect and respect their well-being at sea.
Capt. VS Parani, Vice-President- Marine, Tufton Asset Management Ltd.
Currently, the ILO MLC refers to mental health in the context of fatigue. The IMO is considering addressing mental health in the STCW amendments; separately, the IMO has highlighted risk factors such as lack of shore leave, criminalization, and delayed repatriation. Various governmental and non-governmental stakeholders have published guidelines on improving seafarer mental well-being, and detection and response to a mental health crisis. For a consistent approach towards mental health activities in the maritime industry, I propose that DMLC audits should verify the shipping companies’ policies and capabilities regarding seafarer mental health, including access to hotlines, nutritious food, training, and fitness equipment. The IMO and ILO should share statistics and lessons learned on mental health issues. Seafarers need to play a big part in this human rights alignment as they are best placed to look out for each other at sea.
Adam Parnell, Director Maritime, CHIRP Maritime
There are many low-cost and quickly implementable ‘quick wins’ that can be delivered. These include Raising awareness about the importance of mental health and reducing the stigma surrounding it; enforcing rest and work hours; introducing a contractual right to mental health support and provide unimpeded access to healthcare. At the international level, the industry needs to develop and introduce regulations that explicitly recognize seafarers’ mental health as a fundamental human right.
Yogesh Pasrija, Acting head of crewing, Wallem Group
As a leading ship manager, Wallem Group offers commercial, technical and crewing services to support maritime trades worldwide, to the benefit of economic growth and wider society. The provision of highly skilled, motivated and professional crews therefore represents a core company function, meaning that for Wallem, the welfare of our seafarers is both a business and moral imperative. With their job roles already profoundly affected by digitalisation and decarbonisation, in recent years seafarers have faced the unprecedented crew-change crisis brought by Covid-19. War in Ukraine once again highlights the heavy responsibilities we place on those working at sea today. Human rights are universal and, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said: “Mental health is not a privilege but a fundamental human right that must be part of universal health coverage.” Governments have the duty to protect individuals where these are abused. Including mandatory onboard internet access in an amendment to the Maritime Labour Convention provided a key example of the good work regulators can do to ensure the conditions of seafarers improve. As a result of the heightened attention given to crew welfare during the pandemic, many maritime administrations also moved to recognise seafarers as key workers. However, true change will only be achieved if recognition occurs at a global level.
Lennart Ripke, Director Sales, Green Jakobsen
The mental health of our seafarers has many aspects like the emotional, psychological and social well-being. Due to our unique living and working conditions onboard a seagoing vessel psychological safety is imperative as our emotional and social well-being is directly dependent on the same people we work with – they are after all, the only people who are physically around onboard. William Kahn defined psychological safety as: “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career.” This constitutes an open and trusting environment in the very first place. Only if we are free to express our ideas and concerns and feel taken seriously, we can grow and perform in a team in a safe and professional manner.
Stuart Rivers, Chief Executive of the Merchant Navy Welfare Board (MNWB) – the umbrella charity for the UK Merchant Navy and fishing fleets representing 43 constituent members
Life as a seafarer can be a very lonely and isolated place which, unsurprisingly, impacts their mental health and wellbeing. While many frontline welfare charity providers, many of whom are constituent members of MNWB, have port chaplains who provide practical, emotional and spiritual guidance to support seafarers’ mental health and well-being, more needs to be done to combat this ever-growing issue. Going forward, it’s imperative that seafarers are given the right support from their employers and offered other types of support that would help. Of course, there’s more we can be doing to break down the barriers so seafarers feel they are able to talk openly about mental health. And that will take time.
Penelope Robotis, Clinical & Organizational Psychologist, Chief Psychometrician & Recrutiment Officer, IMEQ- Center
Mental health is a fundamental human right recognized as the right to a standard of living of that ensures the appropriate conditions for the enjoyment of both physical and mental health for all people without discrimination. The maritime industry can be an active agent of mental health wellbeing by implementing strategies that includes raising awareness on the importance of mental health and providing training to all members on recognizing signs of mental health issues. Promote open communication and foster a work environment where people feel safe to talk about mental health issues and concerns they have. Provide resources, information and access to counselling and support services and most importantly ensure an inclusive work environment that fosters a sense of community, belongingness and values diversity.
Andrew Stephens, Executive Director, Sustainable Shipping Initiative
Mental health at work is a global challenge.For seafarers who live and work at sea for months at a time, addressing mental health is a basic need, crucial to ensuring a healthy, safe and secure work and off-work environment. The entire shipping sector has a role to play in this. Providing free access to health services, including for mental health, and ensuring adequate shore leave and rest periods are all ways to respect seafarers’ rights and wellbeing. Additionally, education and open conversation are needed to remove the stigma around mental health challenges. Let’s create a truly sustainable shipping industry with safe, healthy and happy seafarers.
Guro Svanes, Marketing Manager, Bazeport
At Bazeport, we understand the unique challenges faced by seafarers, from the stress and isolation at sea to the unequal treatment they sometimes endure. We believe that regardless of their circumstances, all workers should have equal rights. In the shipping industry, it’s a collective responsibility to prioritize “crew welfare,” and technology can play a vital role in addressing this. We have found our information and entertainment solution helps relieve stress and combats isolation onboard. Our information and entertainment platform offers news, movies, TV shows, and video updates from shore, providing a much-needed break from the rigors of maritime life. It not only combats boredom but also connects seafarers to the world beyond the ship’s walls. Through technical innovation, Bazeport is dedicated to improving seafarers’ mental health, allowing them to relax, socialize, and share their experiences. Our goal is to make life at sea a bit more comfortable, bringing a touch of home to every ship.
Maria Synnou, SafeMetrix Product Expert, MINTRA
Seafarers are an integral part of the maritime industry. However, this dynamic and vibrant workforce faces significant hurdles and mental health challenges in their dayto-day roles. The maritime industry must take concrete action to promote the universal human rights of this diverse workforce. This includes informing seafarers of their rights, preparation for potentially disruptive events or hazards and provision for mental wellbeing plans. All seafarers should be able to access free confidential counselling, recreational facilities, social interaction and internet access to communicate with families. It is important to promote an inclusive working culture to ensure everyone is treated fairly, with respect and dignity. By prioritising the wellbeing and mental health of seafarers the industry can enhance crew efficiency, safety and productivity.
Capt Yves Vandenborn, Head of Loss Prevention Asia-Pacific, NorthStandard
Human rights are rights that we have simply because we exist as human beings, and mental health support should be one of them. Only by respecting and protecting seafarers’ rights to a safe and healthy working environment can the maritime industry begin to safeguard seafarers’ health and wellbeing. If it is normal to see a doctor when seafarers catch a cold or run a fever, it should also be commonplace for them to receive help when they display symptoms of poor mental health. Raising awareness of the signs and impacts of a mental health crisis would be a good start to improving the quality of conversations on the topic and removing the stigma related to it. Considering mental challenges as a valid form of ailment that seafarers can consult a doctor for, would be another way to normalize receiving help for it.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes discussion purposes only.