In an exclusive interview to SAFETY4SEA, Ms. Güven Kale, Chief Clinical Officer (CCO), MHSS, recommends best practices to ensure good mental health onboard, focusing on a holistic approach that includes connection of mind, body, and spirit.
Ms Kale also says that people onboard need to be able to help as first responders when it comes to a mental health crisis. That’s why MSS has started giving lectures on mental health issues at the World Maritime University and trainings for seafarers to psycho-educate them and overcome the hesitation to talk to someone if they feel that something is wrong.
SAFETY4SEA: From your perspective, what are currently the key challenges with regards to seafarers’ mental health and what is your organization’s approach towards?
G.K: As both a captain’s daughter and a clinical psychologist working in this field, I would like to gather this question from two main points. First of all, every sailor I have met so far talks about homesickness and the feeling of loneliness. Of course, when we think that they have to work away from their loved ones for months, the feeling of longing for home and loneliness makes a lot of sense. Due to the time difference and internet problems, they cannot reach their families whenever they need it. If the seafarer wants to turn back to their family, they often have to wait until they reach the next port. This uncertainty creates extra stress for them. Secondly, I often encounter sleeping problems related to depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety can have very different reasons but, in my experience, it is mostly because of a family-related problem, and exhaustion caused by intense long working hours. Lastly, by its nature, the maritime sector pushes the limits of the physical and psychological conditions of seafarers. These people need to be understood, seen, and heard more.
S4S: Do you think the mental health issues relating to mariner welfare are being adequately addressed? What is your feedback so far?
G.K: The mental health of seafarers was a postponed issue that no one talked about or wanted to talk about until a few years ago. This issue should have been a priority but was left in the background. However, talking about mental health on board is no longer a taboo as it used to be. Although there is still a big stigma, it is becoming more and more important, which of course also depends on the culture. Even if it’s late, it’s great to finally be able to discuss this, because education and training on this topic are essential for seafarers to have a safe, strong, and healthy working environment, both psychologically and physically. In order to overcome these problems, it is necessary to be able to speak without fear and hesitation. This is where we psychologists come in. We still have a lot of work to do, we are at the beginning of a long road.
S4S: How does a happy crew onboard look like? What are the top 5 factors that define crew happiness?
G.K: Seafarers must work and live in a limited space with a certain number of colleagues over the months. During this period, it is very important for their mental health to have a good time and to work in harmony. We can list the basic conditions for being healthy and happy in the workplace.
- Openness and transparency in communication,
- constructive feedback (negative and positive),
- Social support
- Team Harmony
- Eating healthy/ drinking enough water
S4S: Have you noticed any trends during the last years and a possible alarming trend for the years to come with respect to seafarers’ mental health?
G.K: One of the important reasons that increase the motivation of the seafarers is that they go ashore at various ports of the world and at least visit that port city and increase their knowledge and culture. However, during and after the corona pandemic, it is not possible for them to land at ports in most countries, which negatively affects the motivation of seafarers. With the rapid increase of the world population, which is expected to reach almost 10 billion people in 2050 and a highly interconnected world, the spread of diseases will get more probable and the risk of new pandemics higher. Governments will react quicker, but this will lead to more frequent restrictions on the movement of seafarers in the port cities, both for prevention and protection. This is an alarming trend that we will need to face in the years to come.
S4S: Which best practices would you recommend from your perspective to ensure good mental health onboard?
G.K: For keeping one individual healthy we need to give importance to the whole-body system rather than pieces and sections that are treated individually. This includes the connection of mind, body, and spirit. It means that you need to have a healthy diet, at least one fruit every day. You need to do regular physical activity, this could be using the exercise room or walking on the deck. You should socialize as much as possible, speaking with your loved ones and having some activities with your colleagues are very important. Lastly, sleeping enough and doing meditation/mindfulness/yoga. If you try to care about all those aspects, it means you are focusing on yourself holistically.
S4S: What are currently the hurdles for enhanced crew welfare onboard and what needs to change to enhance working and living conditions onboard?
G.K: First of all, the contracts should not be too long. Individuals who will join the ship must undergo a psychological assessment, which is very important for both the health of the seafarer and the safety of those on board. All crew members should have basic training on motivation, leadership and psychological first aid because they need to be able to help as first responders when it comes to a mental health crisis. Unfortunately, these trainings are not given in maritime universities and especially new sailors have difficulties in these subjects. That’s why we started giving lectures on mental health issues at the World Maritime University and trainings for seafarers to psycho-educate them and overcome the hesitation to talk to someone if they feel that something is wrong.
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 only.
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