How Telemedicine Can Proactively Identify and Address Mental Health Onboard
From captains to cooks, fishermen to oil riggers, doctors to dancers, an estimated 1.9 million people worldwide work in diverse roles at sea. Seafaring, though, presents unique health challenges – and not just physical. Whilst the importance of mental health care has become a more open conversation globally, it is imperative now more than ever to people who make their living on board.
The Mental Health of Seafarers
When COVID-19 restrictions trapped thousands of crew members onboard ships – some up to a year beyond their contract – ISWAN and MHSS saw a 60% YOY increase in calls for psychological support between April and June 2021. For operators, managers and onboard workers, the situation brought seafarer mental health concerns into sharp focus.
According to an article in Safety4Sea, “The often-high pressure and demanding nature of work can create more high-stress conditions for seafarers compared to workers in other sectors.” Anxiety and depressive disorders are estimated to have risen more than 25% during the first year of the pandemic alone, and numerous industry surveys show that many seafarers feel isolated, stressed and anxious. This impacts not only mental health and morale, but also safety.
Even outside the unique situation created by COVID-19, seafarers face a range of factors that can negatively affect their mental wellbeing. They are expected to work long and often irregular hours, and many do not have access to quiet, comfortable sleeping quarters or nutritious diets. This can compromise physical health, which in turn can negatively impact mental wellbeing. Working onboard a ship also means being part of a small, insular culture, with increased chances for interpersonal conflict, inequality and discrimination. Without a culture of care that starts with management, these can create a serious risk to individual mental wellness.
A recent presentation from the International Chamber of Shipping offered insights on why seafarers face heightened mental health challenges. Despite the legal responsibility that operators have to onboard health and wellbeing, the industry’s diverse global workforce brings a wide range of values, ethics and standards onboard, as well as varied attitudes toward the value of health and wellbeing.
The World Health Organization estimates that 12 billion working days globally are lost every year to depression and anxiety, at a cost of US$1 trillion annually in lost productivity. Working environments themselves often contribute to poor mental health among workers. Safe and healthy working environments are not only a fundamental right, says the WHO, but are also more likely to minimise tension and conflicts whilst improving retention, performance and productivity.
Mental Health Solutions at Sea
The maritime sector faces unique mental health challenges, especially compared with other industries, but a recent study outlined numerous steps managers can take to improve crew wellbeing, including hiring more crew members, closely monitoring their mental health, and investing in education and support for mental health at sea.
VIKAND’s Total Healthcare Solution includes annual comprehensive Wellness Reviews for crew members accessed via telemedicine. During the Wellness Review, a trained nurse assesses each patient’s physical and mental well-being across a range of parameters. Additionally, crew members with chronic conditions are offered more regular telemedicine visits with specialist clinicians.
For seafarers with mental health needs, telemedicine is a powerful tool. Using their own mobile device, maritime workers can now maintain an ongoing relationship with a qualified mental health professional. This kind of continuous one-on-one care was once only possible in person, but telemedicine makes private, secure video and voice connections more accessible.
Easy access to mental health resources is not only valuable to seafarers who want help managing specific conditions, but as preventive care, too. An acute mental health crisis is the last phase of a process that begins with warning signs. If symptoms are noticed early, telemedicine makes it possible to receive immediate evaluation and treatment before things progress to the level of a crisis. From a business perspective, this kind of proactive medicine helps to maintain a healthy and productive workforce.
Mental Health is Part of Human Sustainability
As we discussed in our insight on threats to maritime’s future, retaining talent is critical to sustaining our industry for decades to come. The only way this will happen is by prioritising mental health and human sustainability overall. Maritime operators cannot expect to attract workers unless they can promise a safe, supportive environment with tools to address all types of health and wellness concerns, including mental health.
Seafaring is tough work, but we all have a responsibility to raise the bar wherever possible. Creating a true culture of care isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing. A happy, healthy, productive workforce is a competitive advantage, and maritime companies that prioritise mental health and human sustainability will become a beacon for global talent.