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Why we should all be concerned about seafarer mental health

Traditional attitudes to dealing with seafarer stress must be reassessed in light of significant changes to the industry. Failure to do so could have serious implications for recruitment and retention

A rise in bullying and harassment at sea can be linked to weak leadership, a reduction in community spirit, and a narrow view of health. Psychologists believe it’s time to take mental health seriously

MENTAL health at sea is the elephant in the room. No one really wants to talk about bullying or harassment, loneliness or anxiety. But it’s there, and many are increasingly worried that it’s getting worse.

There are many strands to mental health. While every individual case should be taken separately, those who study this sector think part of the problem stems, ironically, from significantly improved communications.

Seafarers can contact family members far more than they used to, and hear the joys and sorrows of family life, but can’t contribute in any meaningful way. And when seafarers join ship, they bring the stresses of home life into an environment where it’s not cool to discuss them. Suppressed anxiety is dangerous.

Ship masters are part of the problem and also part of the solution. That’s understood. But what about further up the corporate tree? Are executives, decision-makers and bean-counters also part of the problem? Can the stresses felt by an individual seafarer be traced up to a corporate culture that is, ultimately, designed by senior managers who have never been to sea?

The Covid-19 experience has been instructive for those of us who are on shore. Lockdowns can be survived if there is an end in sight but there’s nothing worse for mental health than being trapped in a limited space, with dependents, and no light at the end of the tunnel. Imagine being a seafarer trapped for 11 months or a year, uncertain about when escape will come and what kind of reception they will get at the airport.

Humans are social animals. We not only enjoy each other’s company, we thrive on it. Digital solutions have tremendous value but we mustn’t underestimate the value of talking through our problems. It sounds so non-technical, and therefore old-fashioned. But getting seafarers to talk is the very first step to building a holistic approach to mental health.

This year will be remembered for the tremendous effort put in by crew managers around the world in helping to ease the humanitarian crisis of seafarer repatriation. However, just as ‘long Covid’ describes the effects of coronavirus long after the patient has left hospital, neither should we forget that the mental health effects on seafarers who have suffered from anxiety will extend long after they get back home.

The year 2021 is shaping up to be the year when decarbonisation will be taken seriously and the year digitalisation wll begin to have a meaningful impact on smart shipping. The year must also see seafarer mental health taken much more seriously.

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