On the occasion of the World Mental Health day, we asked industry experts to share their views on what needs to change to make seafarers’ mental health a key priority for shipping, as the theme of this year’s international day highlights.
If you could change one thing to improve seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing, what this would be and why?
Sophia Bullard, Director, Crew Health Programme, Thomas Miller P&I Ltd
I would prioritise mental health and wellbeing training in our industry. Address the subject head on and early on. Make Mental Health First Aid and Suicide Prevention training, with self-care and coping strategies, available for everyone on all levels. To encourage an open and honest discussion on mental health would reduce the stigma. There are some excellent initiatives already in place where resources and learning materials are shared across the sector. Such as Together in Safety Wellbeing and Care (Tools & Resources – Together in Safety), The Seafarers’ Mental Health and Wellbeing Awareness Training Standard created by the Maritime Charities Group in 2020 to create a structure for effective mental wellbeing education. Awareness and education coupled with excellent support structures are key elements to a healthy, positive mental health.
Yves Vandenborn, Director of Loss Prevention, Standard Club
Seafaring has been made out to be a resilient career when the times get tough, the tough get going. Such an image holds those who are suffering back from seeking help, from potentially portraying themselves as weak and soft, making mental health even more of a stigma than it is. When in fact, anyone is susceptible to challenges that threaten their mental wellbeing. Only with more awareness and conversation on this front would seafarers be inclined to be honest whenever they feel vulnerable. The industry must do its part, listen to seafarers and act upon their concerns. Through an industry wide effort, we can reduce the stigma and effect real change.
Erik Green, CEO, co-founder of Green-Jakobsen A/S
Giving a simple answer to a complex issue is not easy. But, one thing does have a tremendous importance: the ability to identify the signals of poor mental health. Often, we refrain from facing mental health issues, partly because we lack knowledge and because we fear that talking about it will do more harm than good. It takes courage to encounter a colleague who doesn’t thrive, especially if we think we are not part of the solution. Being aware of the signals of poor mental health and asking for help, is an important first step to relieve the pain. A broken soul is not as visible as a broken leg but let us use the tools available to recognize mental health issues and start talking about it.
Carleen Lyden Walker, Chief Executive Officer, IMO Goodwill Maritime Ambassador, Morgan Marketing & Communications
I would change the stigma related to mental health. This has been a taboo topic both on land and at sea—but at sea there are very few avenues for escape. A friend of mine once said: “We are all born perfect—then life happens.” Whether it is upbringing, a chemical imbalance, traumatic experiences or environment, most people experience times of mental stress which can manifest in behavioral issues. It is important to address them, and not try to put them in a drawer or under the rug. Depending on the severity, professional help is recommended to help resolve the dis-ease and restore equanimity. It is critical to express your concerns in a safe environment where one’s well-being is the desired outcome. Many vessels provide access to doctors who will help the individual navigate through their time of discomfort. Above all, respect for the individual and their situation is critical.
Andrew Stephens, Executive Director, Sustainable Shipping Initiative
Respecting seafarers’ rights to a safe, healthy, and secure work environment is a vital way to improve seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing. Ensuring that seafarers have sufficient and adequate rest hours, shore leave, and connectivity to loved ones provides seafarers with multiple opportunities to rest and recharge. Guaranteeing access to multiple tools to prevent fatigue and burnout is a core way of improving seafarer wellbeing. These practices go hand-in-hand with respecting seafarers’ basic rights, such as honouring the end date of a contract and ensuring that seafarers can safely return home as planned.
Captain VS Parani, FNI, FICS, CMarTech-IMarEST, Vice President – Marine at Tufton Asset Management Ltd., Cyprus
The culture of the organization, including that onboard the ship. I worked on old ships where work and living conditions were challenging but never felt overwhelming because we had a supportive team right from the top. The office team was demanding but supportive and never abusive, even when we made mistakes. That supportive culture also flowed through the senior officers who encouraged people to take pride in their work and took care of the welfare and mentoring of the crew. There were regular social events that were often sponsored by the company. Shipmates, regardless of nationality, were comfortable enough to express professional opinions and sometimes, personal feelings. An engaged crew helps make a safe and well-run ship.
Johan Smith, Head of Wellness, Sailors’ Society
At the first of our 2022 Wellness at Sea Maritime Schools’ Conferences, more than 96 per cent of cadets polled said wellness training should be mandatory. We agree. We start our Wellness at Sea focus with cadets, staying by their side with virtual and face-to-face support throughout their seafaring careers and beyond. The rationale is simple. It’s in everyone’s interests for the seafarer to be in the best place to look after their wellbeing and that of others around them. Life as a seafarer can be tough. And when they may be looking after millions of dollars worth of cargo and more than 80 per cent of accidents at sea are down to human error, it’s about the bottom line too.
Ian Stokes, Head of Corporate Engagement and Partnerships, Stella Maris
Continued culture change and cross-sector partnerships are essential to stem the growth in mental health issues in maritime. Pandemic and war have exacerbated an already highly stressful and dangerous occupation and many maritime organisations have responded commendably by introducing holistic care package for their crews. However, seafarers need continued encouragement and reassurance to discuss their issues and address them head on, rather than bottle them up. Stella Maris’s global network is working with numerous maritime partners including MHSS, OneCare Solutions and HFW to provide essential mental health support for seafarers and their families, whoever and wherever they are.
Ben Bailey, Director of Programme, The Mission to Seafarers
We need to be careful about the words we use. Too many welfare initiatives originate in boardrooms and that is unhelpful. In my opinion, seafarers’ welfare is about listening and responding to the needs of seafarers and building from the ground up – giving seafarers the tools they need to make informed decisions about their own welfare. That’s why the Mission to Seafarers operates the Seafarers Happiness Index, it gives seafarers agency to say how they really feel. In its bid to create a space for seafarers’ welfare, the industry must ensure it takes a holistic approach. Using a dehumanising term such as the “human element” can make seafarers sound like they’re a problem, when they are people just like you and me with real worries and concerns.
Anny Idzinga, Crew Health and Welfare Coordinator at MF Shipping Group
On board a crew has diverse backgrounds and nationalities, therefore communication can be difficult and this can lead to loneliness. Seafarers constantly talk about the importance of social events. These events give them the opportunity to be together to build a positive and more open environment. It is also important that seafarers look after their own physical health. Proper nutrition, along with exercise and adequate rest helps to prevent diseases and improve physical health. By implementing above it’s my intention that seafarers feel free to talk about negative feelings, with someone on board or ashore.
If we could change one thing to improve seafarers’ mental health and wellbeing, what this would be and why? Could the situation of poor mental health be improved by always repeating the big words, like: “stigma, continued culture change and cross-sector partnerships, supportive culture, respecting seafarers’ basic rights, the ability to identify the signals of poor mental health, listen to seafarers and act upon their concerns and awareness and education coupled with excellent support structures”?
All those issues are really important. I add another proven concept: Continuum of Care. But using those concepts will be not enough!
HOW can we make those concepts, WORK? Not by building on hear-say or just repeating them. But by collecting real time data of seafarers on ship- or company level. Ben Bailey and Johan Smith might love this approach. PsyFyi is working on it… I am glad to be one of their team.