Currently, we see wellness and wellbeing for seafarers  catching on. Sailors’ Society has been looking to the wellbeing of seafarers for the last 201 years, taking into consideration all changes in the seafaring community. In the last 6 years we have concentrated on the transforming seafarers, their families and communities in port, at home and at sea through our Wellness At Sea programme.

Addressing Safety and Welfare of seafarers

It is not easy talking about the wellbeing of seafarers because as long as they’re human, there will always be errors. We can never be 100% error prone. But we believe that there is a connection between the wellbeing of a person and the way that the person is able to perform his/her job.

As you know over the last 3-4 years, there has been much attention given to the various aspects of seafarer wellbeing, from nutrition to fatigue, to other soft skills required by seafarers. Now, mental illness and suicide have been the hot topics for the last 12-15 months. This is mainly due the extensive use of social media nowadays.

In a survey conducted by Yale University in 2017/2018, it was concluded that 26% of 1,000 seafarers surveyed felt down, depressed, or hopeless. Out of this, 45% of those surveyed or 117 seafarers did not ask anyone for help, onboard or onshore.

I’m not saying that anyone  who feels depressed will commit suicide. Everybody may feel down and depressed at a certain point of time. But, suicide accounts for 6% of seafarers’ deaths and could be significantly more if we include suspicious disappearances.

For comparison, 1% of deaths in the UK in 2017 were recorded as suicide. Every country has its own set of suicide statistics.

The Samaritans of Singapore  reported that there were 398 cases of suicide in 2018; this is for 5.5 million  people living in Singapore. Suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 10-29 years. This is quite interesting to me, because in the last year, as part of our work in  Sailors’ Society, when we come across suicide cases we have not seen anyone above the age of 35 committing suicide; they’ve been all young.

There are 2.8 times more deaths from suicide than transportation deaths. So for every person that is killed by car, it means that 2.8 people have committed suicide. 71% of suicide deaths were males. We thought that the ladies  would be more prone to suicide but in Singapore males are more prone to suicide. And there are six survivors for every suicide death . Meaning the number of people that attempted suicide are much higher than the 398 deaths that I mentioned.

So how about the Philippines? It is slightly different. The last statistics I got was from 2013; there were 1.8 males  out of 100,000 that committed suicide, and this is lower than the females, which was 2.5 females  per 100,000.

There are various triggers to suicide:

  • Separation from family
  • Social isolation
  • Financial issues
  • Long working hours
  • Lack of good quality sleep
  • Tight deadlines
  • Cultural diversity
  • Technology
  • Port migrations
  • Problems at home

Above those triggers, there are certain risk factors we have to look out for, such as previous attempts of suicide, family history of suicide, mental health conditions, serious chronic health issues, distressing life events and prolonged stress.  I think, for seafarers a risk factor is prolonged time at sea. . The things we do in our program is helping seafarers identify possible signs of mental health issues; one visible sign is a total disinterest in anything around him.

It doesn’t matter what your rank or position is, onshore or on a ship. Everyone is prone to a possibility of suffering from some kind of mental health issues.  In Sailors Society we have the “Crisis Response Network” with trained counselors, many of them are actually ordained ministers, and they are able to provide immediate counselling services to seafarers, should they need help.

So, how do we tackle this problem of poor wellness? By addressing the various aspects of a person’s wellbeing. We do this through a holistic approach. I think that’s the way to go, because no other element is more important than the other.

Wellness  At Sea is made up of 5 parts -  social, emotional, physical, intellectual and spiritual. When we conduct  our training, we also look at the spiritual part . This is non-religious and looks at a person’s belief system. We believe this can help a person build up  his resiliency in times of trouble. It is importtant because  we all go through times of trouble and some distressing life events.

Wellness At Sea is a classroom-based program, it touches on the five elements mentioned and takes about 3 days. But having it in the classroom is never good enough; we need to  keep practising the knowledge we have picked up. We want  the seafarer to take his wellness into his own hands; thus, we developed an application called the Wellness App. The seafarer can  use this app and work through the 5 elements of  his wellbeing.

This is an edited version of Mr Gavin’s Lim presentation during the 2019 SAFETY4SEA Manila Forum.

You may view his presentation herebelow

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.

Gavin Lim, Regional Development Manager, Sailors’  Society

Gavin Lim is the Asia regional manager for maritime welfare charity Sailors’ Society. Based in Singapore, he leads and supports a network of 20 port chaplains and community development officers.

Since joining the Society in 2014, he has overseen the design and implementation of 12 flagship projects in the Philippines, Indonesia and India. These projects include building housing and medical facilities, school rehabilitation, community outreach and the expansion of the award-winning Wellness at Sea programme.

Prior to joining the charity, Gavin spent more than 20 years in the commercial sector with experience in marketing, operations and compliance management.

He is a graduate of the University of London, with an honours degree in law.