We need to talk about mental health in seafaring
Mental health issues and crew suicide are on the rise – so what can we do as an industry to help?
Life at sea is known for its harsh conditions - both physically (where crew must brave storms and malfunctioning equipment) and mentally (where they must battle isolation and other issues that could affect mental health). The World Health Organization (WHO) points out that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, and seems to be on the rise. Its figures show that the number of people living with depression increased by over 18% between 2005 and 2015 and that more than 300 million people currently live with depression globally. It is indisputable that some of these people will opt for seafaring as a career path, making this an extremely important issue for us as an industry.
One of the biggest obstacles to be overcome is the negative stereotypes around mental health, which act as a barrier to open discussions of the problems and possible solutions. After all, who would want to talk to friends or an employer about their depression or seek help if they might be labelled “crazy” or unstable? Or even worse, if it could cost them their job? But this silence can have deadly consequences.
A recent crew welfare roundtable held by Safety at Sea and UK P&I, revealed that suicide rates among seafarers appear to be on the increase. The UK P&I insurance claim data suggested that 2016 accounted for a quarter of the number of suicide-related cases it has dealt with in the last decade. While the data is not definitive evidence it is an indicator of a problem getting worse.
Other studies show similarly worrying data. A recently published study by the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC) found there has been an increase in psychiatric disorders amongst seafarers over the last five years. In 2011, responses to the SIRC questionnaire completed by 1026 seafarers indicated that 28% of respondents had some form of ‘psychiatric disorder’. In 2016, the questionnaire, completed by 1513 seafarers, revealed respondents suffering from a psychiatric disorder had risen “substantially” to 37%.
Furthermore, seafarers were more likely to say they were less healthy than they were in 2011, despite fewer seafarers on board actually being diagnosed with a specific medical problem. The report suggested that this could be due to a reported increase of fatigue and mental health problems, which could make crew feel less healthy in general.
Creating an open discourse about seafarer health is needed, just as it is onshore, so that awareness can improve and better mental health provisions and work policies to support and protect crew can be put in place. These could range from having designated officers with training in mental health to improvements in recreation and leisure facilities on board. SIRC’s Helen Sampson suggested that greater access to shore leave and more attention to “the elimination of environmental and work-related impediments to sleep” would all contribute to better seafarer mental health.
Safety at Sea wants to build a better picture of the mental health of the average seafarer, with the aim of sharing this valuable information with wider industry, including senior management that makes investment decisions. This information could shape the paths that investments in crew take and will act as a vital health check on the seafarers that are the lifeblood of the sector.
Click here to take our survey about seafarer mental health and share your experiences with mental health at sea. The results will also be featured in the upcoming October issue of the magazine.
A number of mental health and support resources are available at the following websites: