Mental health is important at every stage of life; it affects the way we think, feel, and act. Long before the pandemic, had shipping industry realized the importance of mental health but ultimately now it has become a key priority due to social distancing, crew changes crisis, uncertainty and all other difficult conditions that COVID-19 brought to our lives.
n a recent SAFETY4SEA Talk, Dr. Pennie Blackburn, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at ISWAN, Mr. Johan Smith, Wellness Programme Manager at Sailors’ Society and Capt. Hari Subramaniam, Regional Head-Business Relations at Shipowners’ Club highlighted the alarming trends with regards to mental health and suggested ways to eradicate the stigma around.
Life at sea has changed over last decades, said Dr. Blackburn, noting that long time ago working at sea was a real oppotunity to see the word, as there were long periods in port and a quite significant shore leave as well. Moreover, the pressures of life at sea have changed nowadays since crews are getting smaller, they are more diverse and multicultural and shore leaves are much shorter.
‘’These couple months since the pandemic broke out, there is a focus on the pressures of life at sea and how voyage extensions have really contributed to the stress that people are under.‘’ she argued.
For many reasons seafarers are vulnerable to mental health; They have limited opportunities to take care of themselves like ordinary people, so they need to be mindful about how to care for themselves.
…Dr Blackburn commented.
In his turn, Mr Smith from Sailors’ Society suggested that in order to understand where we stand today, we need to go back to history and think what it was before. ‘’Ten years ago, I vividly remember talking at a conference in London where there was severe opposition to the whole idea that companies are responsible for things like wellbeing and mental health. However, we have been the early adopters of this issue’ he mentioned, highlighting that the industry slowly builds awareness and the majority now believes that mental health is important.
So, we are in a good place; the pandemic pushes us to a tipping point. In time to come, it is unpreventable that the rest will follow suit and for that reason i believe that we have come a long way.
..Mr Smith added.
Furthermore, Capt. Subramaniam agreed that industry has made a good progress but it is important to identify that there is still the stigma of mental health and take proper actions in order no one to feel offended but to realize how important this issue is actually.
In that regard, we need to understand what has drastically altered the shipping ecosystem over the last years; to find the problem and an appropriate solution, he suggested. Although there are many solutions and initiatives with respect of mental health, there are companies which adopt these without doing any proper research first. As a result, this may not be perceived by the seafarer as it should be.
‘’When it comes to mental health, it’s not one size fits all; as such, that turns out to be a more stressful experience for the seafarer’’ Capt. Subramaniam also commented.
With regards to who is responsible to address the issue of mental health, all experts agreed that this is a shared responsibility among the company/ the organization , the crew managers and the individual. ‘’The company does have a duty of care towards seafarers and all its employees in exactly the same way that has a duty of care to their physical and mental health.’’ Dr. Blackburn supported.
‘’I do agree with share responsibility towards that topic. In my mind, first of all, we are all responsible for ourselves before any one else; this is actually one of the things we like to emphasize; sticking with the maritime environment, you are the master of your own vessel! Secondly, responsibility lies to the companies of course; however, on a regulatory basis, we also need some input. We need a stronger framework in terms of regulation so to be absolutely clear what is expected. ‘’ Mr Smith stressed with regards to the topic. In his experience, there are many outstanding organizations that do not need regulations to support mental health but unfortunately, due to those which are not taking action, a framework will ensure that mental health actions are in place.
Also, we need to understand that not everyone in the industry can be an expert on mental health, so a framework will provide reliable help.
…Mr. Smith said while Capt. Subramaniam added that mental health should be an iniative of quality and not just something that the company did towards that end to put a tick on the box . As such, there should be regulatory standards, a framework and also more encouragement for involvement by organizations such as ISWAN, Sailors’ Society etc.
Experts noted that currently there is an increased awareness on mental health and an appetite for understanding. ‘’People are more encouraged and more motivated to think about mental health and what it needs to happen. Every company ought to have some kind of mental health plan at work or policy with objectives that refer to seafarers’ mental health. That requires a focus on the risks associated with mental wellbeing of different crews; for example life onboard is different between crew members onboard tankers and cruise ships. ‘’ said Dr. Blackburn from ISWAN.
It was also noted that seafarers may become very stressed onboard since they have to accomplish several demanding tasks while at the same time they have to answer to emails, alerts and report to company ashore. Enhanced connectivity onboard gives them the opportunity to stay connected with family and friends after working hours but doesn’t help them to switch off. They learn live all news, even the depressing ones, i.e. the death of a favorite person, which that can impact negatively their mental health, since they do not have much time to absorb the news and the right mentality to face them.
In that regard, it is important to have mechanisms and support people who suffer and encourage them to be open and communicate their problems. Thus, addressing the stigma is a huge issue. Commenting the topic, Mr Smith referred to a recent survey by Sailors’ Society that identified the importance of conducting specific training on mental health in order to break the stereotypes.
In this turn, Capt. Subramaniam noted these stereotypes still exist due to current mindset of several operators who do not want to move out of their comfort zone. In general, every company has a training budget, so it is up to each operator on how well it is being used. Focusing on mental heath training a well is definitely is good investment, they agreed.
Explore more by watching SAFETY4SEA Talk herebelow