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September 30, 2023

Mental Health Issues of Seafarers: A Serious Concern

By Aakanksha Nigam

“Seafarer” is a profession that sounds either adventurous or fun, but one forgets to take a look at what’s going on beneath the surface. To discuss the same, Littoral Communications reached out to Dr. Deepti Mankad, Consultant and Wellness Coordinator.

On the importance of talking about mental health and why we should talk more often about it, Dr. Mankad said, “Well, not enough people know what the sea and shipping do for us. No one appreciates the benefits of shipping. Because the truth hurts and sometimes selective truth doesn’t tell the whole story. Out of sight and out of mind we can get on with our business without facing up to some uncomfortable truths about what we do. This makes the seafarers feel left out and they lack the feeling of belongingness. This gives rise to psychological and emotional problems amongst seafarers which surely needs to be addressed.”

Seafarers often operate in a physically and psychologically hazardous workplace. In contrast to physical health concerns, the mental health status of seafarers has not received as much attention.

Heat, cold, noise, vibration, multiculturalism, multinationalism, social isolation, loneliness, separation from spouses and families, piracy, and criminalization on board are risk factors for health disorders.

They frequently deal with financial troubles (caused directly by the pandemic), problems with repatriation, issues with their mental and physical health, unpaid pay, bullying, and harassment.

Their inability to sign off and return home, their heavy workloads, virus fears, and a perceived lack of COVID-19 safeguards on board ships drains them mentally. 

Since Mental health is still a taboo subject for many people, people usually tend to avoid talking about it. Often due to the stigma attached to it that mental issues mean insanity, which is totally untrue.

To explain this further, she added, “Earlier not much research was done in this area as seafarers and companies are hesitant to share data. But times are changing now and gradually companies are taking initiative in this area of work.”

The work of a seafarer is characterized by a hierarchical organizational structure, shift work, and hazy work-rest boundaries. 

Seafarers’ physical and psychological health is affected by the demands of their jobs, which can also lead to turnover intentions and job dissatisfaction levels. Dr. Mankad further told Littoral Communications, “Seafarers face different mental health issues like depression, anxiety, chronic stress, chronic fatigue, suicidal ideation, and sometimes post-traumatic stress.”

She said that there are many signposts, or as we say telltale signs, which are observable when someone is going through a mental health issue.

The signs she mentioned were as follows:

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Confused thinking or a reduced ability to concentrate
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
  • Extreme mood changes with highs and lows
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Significant tiredness, low energy, or problems sleeping
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia, or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  • Problems with alcohol or drug use
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Sex drive changes
  • Excessive anger, hostility, or violence
  • Suicidal thinking

She further added that oftentimes, mental health symptoms show up as physical illnesses like stomach pain, back pain, headaches, or other unexplained aches and pains.

On the discussion about the suicide rate among seafarers, she said, “There are many factors which lead to a state of poor mental health or mental ill health of seafarers as discussed earlier. If we look back, the rate of suicide amongst seafarers in 2014 was 4.5%. But in a span of one year, it tripled and shot up to 15.5% in 2015-2016. In 2017 The UK P&I Club was putting the spotlight on seafarers’ mental health with suicide the cause of 15% of deaths at sea. Today the rate of suicide has crossed 17%.” 

Paul Carroll and Adman Behailu in their recent research, Suicide, and Seafarers mention that ‘The impact of suicide has two distinct perspectives: the impact on a ship’s crew and the wider impact on the industry. When considering the former, people typically discuss the trauma and distress experienced by the crew. Discussions of how a crewmate dying of suicide can raise worries about one’s own future and how an individual might deal with their own pressures. There was a sense that it can make seafarers reluctant to continue in this environment even when, in the short or medium term, they cannot leave. People described “creepy” and highly distressing incidents such as having to store crewmates’ bodies in freezers for weeks or months at a time, or situations where the crew has attempted and failed to save a crewmate’s life. In relation to this, they also described the trauma experienced by seafarers as they blamed themselves for not doing more to help, blaming themselves for failing to recognize a crewmate’s situation until it was too late.’

When inquired about the facilities provided to seafarers regarding their mental health, Dr. Mankad told the Thalassic Post, “Over the past few years, the shipping industry has put more emphasis on the mental health of seafarers, referring to the serious hazards to people and the economy that could develop if a seafarer experienced a mental health crisis while on duty. Many businesses offer their sailors onboard free access to 24-hour helplines. Anyone who is experiencing a mental health condition or psychological breakdown is welcome to seek these services. Additionally, a lot of welfare groups offer free assistance to seafarers through their counseling hotlines, which are accessible to all seafarers.”

Speaking on behalf of the maritime industry, she said that the maritime industry always tries to take care of its fellow seafarers. “By providing coping mechanisms, teaching mindfulness, and encouraging open conversation, the current disconnect between mitigative and preventative measures can be avoided, as people are left with a far broader arsenal for tackling problems as they arise,” she added. “Effective training in mental health awareness for seafarers and shore-based maritime professionals working with seafarers can have a very positive impact on seafarers’ mental wellbeing and help to ensure they are well prepared for some of the challenges presented above. Training which increases understanding of mental health will also help to greatly reduce stigma.” 

She concluded the discussion by stating that training can give senior employees and sailors the knowledge and abilities they need to address a problem on board or within their organization.

Participants can benefit from training that effectively teaches them the value of self-care and maintaining their own mental health while at sea.

There may be little opportunity for proper rest and time to engage in leisure activities, which are crucial for optimal well-being due to quick turnaround periods in ports and lengthy working hours. Having to share a space with coworkers from different cultures and living close by might make mariners feel lonely.

Additionally, because there is no way to flee from the harasser aboard a ship, the repercussions of bullying and harassment may be much worse.

Working at sea can be risky, and seafarers may experience stress due to worries about piracy and maritime emergencies. Therefore, attention must be paid to the mental health and well-being of seafarers.

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