Mental Health Support Services (MHSS) reported seafarers’ mental well-being worsening
So much attention was placed on crew change caused by pandemic-induced travel restrictions and delayed vaccinations – naming it as a crisis. However, few failed to recognise seafarers’ mental health as the real crisis, catalysed by COVID-19.
Seafarers’ real crisis
Many jumped on the bandwagon and labelled crew change as a seafarer crisis. MHSS said crew on ships reported growing anxiety, burnout and depression as at the end of February. Contributing factors are lack of support and being stuck onboard for prolonged periods without indications of disembarking. These garnered numerous employers’ initiatives to help seafarers cope.
Christian Ayerst, MHSS chief executive, and a former shipping lawyer, said: “It is vital we do not just pay lip service to the term ‘mental health’. We must ensure it becomes a lasting conversation, even as we look ahead with hopes that vaccination will push us out of this pandemic.”
Charles Watkins, the clinical psychologist at MHSS, said mental health issues onboard ships are not new, but the stress on seafarers did heighten with the crew change crisis. He highlighted tending to emotional needs and health is just as important as physical health. “Seafarers’ isolation can make it more difficult to recognise problems, and people used to suffer silently. However, there is more readiness among seafarers and management to change the environment,” Watkins added. MHSS provides services — one-to-one therapy, training and a confidential 24/7 hotline run by clinical psychologists to about 5,000 ships.
Dealing with the stigma
Watkins highlighted seafarers may leave ships without flagging their issues to management due to the stigma of being mentally-distressed and deemed unfit. “Mental health is a normal part of life. We all suffer, and it is nothing to be ashamed of,” he added.
Recognising harmful processes is necessary by raising awareness and setting clear boundaries. MHSS conducts training courses on bullying designed to change harmful cultures and help others intervene wherever necessary. The agency also aims to train seafarers to spot behaviours and be alert to personality types and leadership styles to prevent systematic issues.
During the pandemic, seafarers struggled with challenges such as being unable to remit wages home, quite apart from being stuck onboard vessels for extended periods. In the past, they could always leave a ship at an upcoming port.
Introducing a new perspective, Ayerst challenges the notion that mental health is a cost centre, and advocates making it an investment. Watkins added the goal is to give seafarers the tools and responsibility to help themselves. He noted, “Creating a caring and compassionate environment is better and more productive for everyone.”
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