Let’s Change the Conversation Around Mental Health at Sea
For the more than 1.9 million people worldwide who work at sea, it is not uncommon to experience mental health challenges. However, right now there’s a huge opportunity for the maritime industry to change how it views and addresses mental health at sea.
Mental health concerns can affect anyone, especially at sea, and treating them proactively is a valuable business investment. Maritime workers who feel mentally and physically well are safer, happier and more productive, which is better for everyone – from seafarers to shareholders.
The Challenges of Mental Health Care at Sea
“Fighting the social stigma around mental health might be one of the toughest challenges facing the maritime industry,” says Martin Hedman, a psychologist and VIKAND Medical Director Mental Wellness Practice. He studied the pandemic mental health crisis among seafarers and believes it’s time for the industry to update its approach.
Anxiety and depressive disorders are estimated to have risen more than 25% during the first year of the pandemic alone, and numerous industry surveys have shown that many seafarers feel isolated, stressed and anxious. This impacts not only mental health and morale, but also safety. Mentally unwell workers are more prone to accidents and absenteeism, which can leave crews vulnerable and understaffed.
“Maritime work has a centuries-old reputation as work for ‘tough’ people who face their problems stoically,” he says. “These legacy attitudes really don’t align with our present reality, or what we’ve come to understand about mental health. As with all cultural changes, it will take something of a revolution to update entrenched beliefs.”
The first step, according to Hedman, is to change our perspective. If we view anxiety and depression as personal failures rather than health issues, it makes seafarers less inclined to seek care. But with discussion, training and policy changes, we can reach a place where being “weak” enough to seek help isn’t just normal, but perceived as a sign of strength.
As a provider of healthcare at sea, VIKAND views mental health as a key to long-term human sustainability and worker retention in the maritime industry. Studies across several industries link wellbeing at work with better business outcomes, and the companies that thrive long-term will be those that view workers – their most important asset – as an investment rather than an expense.
Changing Attitudes Toward the Nature of Work
Many workers – especially younger ones – now want more than just money from their chosen career. That’s even truer in hardworking fields like the maritime industry. Today’s seafarers want safety and security, a sense of connection, respect and self-actualization in their career. A key part of this is a supportive work environment that respects both mental and physical health, with adequate tools to address both.
Dr. John Howe, a VIKAND Medical Director, shared insights on where we can improve our approach to mental health at sea. “We know from research that most maritime employers do not recognize the importance of onboard mental health and welfare to the same extent that maritime charities do,” he explains. “Many seafarers are also not trained to identify someone suffering from depression or anxiety.”
The solution is to reduce the social stigma around mental illness, which is often incorrectly linked with unemployability. Through a combination of misinformation and lack of awareness, the typical response to mental health issues at sea has been isolation and debarkation, but a more informed and caring approach to mental health at sea could help workers better understand and manage their issues, which would go a long way to keeping them healthy, active and productive.
Responding to Seafarer Mental Health Concerns
A study by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) found that certain key roles at sea are more prone to emotional exhaustion and burnout. The reasons cited for this include loneliness, separation from family, and limited onboard interactions and activities.
Similarly, the Mission to Seafarers Q1 2023 Seafarers Happiness Index report found two key areas of concern: lack of shore leave and access to welfare services. Respondents reported attempts by managers to keep them onboard past their contracted end date, and said that lack of shore leave negatively impacts mental health and wellbeing.
Other onboard challenges include:
- Complicated interpersonal dynamics
- Feeling disengaged with colleagues
- Lack of constructive social activities
- Long and often irregular work hours
- Poor food choices and sleeping conditions
Mental health concerns are not unique to seafaring, but these issues do appear to disproportionately affect workers in our industry. In light of that, we must do more than simply raise awareness of the symptoms. Poor mental health and inadequate care reflect the company and industry – not the individual. We must proactively examine the environment, culture and leadership contributing to these outcomes so that we can make substantial organizational and cultural changes.
Without a culture of care that starts at the very top, mental health issues will continue to threaten people, ships, companies and the maritime industry as a whole. We owe it to seafarers – our single most valuable asset – to proactively examine every possible factor that might contribute to mental health challenges at sea and work together on better solutions for everyone.
Mental Health Solutions at Sea
As VIKAND Medical Director Dr. John Howe noted, research has shown that most maritime employers simply do not recognize the importance of onboard mental health, so improving things must begin with management. Employers need better training and information on what mental health issues are, how to spot them, treatment options, and to understand the consequences if they continue ignoring the reality of the situation.
A study published last year in BMC Psychology outlined numerous steps managers can take to improve crew wellbeing, closely monitoring their mental health through both in-person and telemedicine care, and investing in more education and support for mental health at sea. Easy access to mental health resources is not only valuable to seafarers who want help managing specific conditions, but as preventive care, too.
When managers and workers can spot risk factors or warning signs, in both themselves and one another, it greatly improves their ability to address problems before they have a chance to create negative personal and business consequences.
Satellite communication advancements have had a positive impact on the life of seafarers. From video chatting to phone calls, email and beyond, connectivity has made it easier and more affordable to stay in touch with loved ones, and provided more opportunities for stress relief, relaxation and entertainment.
Management can take this one step further and use satellite connectivity to support mental health. This includes access to educational resources, support groups and even the ability for seafarers to privately seek live, one-on-one counselling from onshore mental health professionals through their mobile device. Maritime companies that invest in the mental health of their seafarers will be better able to attract and retain valuable human capital, helping their businesses thrive in the long-term.