What are the issues seafarers face today that could lead them to suffering from poor mental health?

What are the issues seafarers face today that could lead them to suffering from poor mental health
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Mental Health at Sea - What are the issues affected seafarers today?

Poor mental health can stem from seafarers being exposed to stressful situations during their daily lives onboard the ship. This can include:

Separation from their families.

In particular when there's a celebration, so it can be a first birthday, it can be a daughter's wedding.

Longer working hours, tighter deadlines and greater responsibility for the crew.

Many years ago there were a larger number of crew onboard the ship than what there are today.

Lack of shore leave due to the quick turnaround of ships.

This means that seafarers are unable to go ashore and do some sight-seeing or just to generally get away from the environment of the ship.

Cultural diversity.

There is also the issue with cultural diversity that exists onboard ships these days. There are a greater number of mixed crew, which in itself can cause problems as far as in particular communication problems. So the ability to be able to talk to one another.

Threat of piracy.

This can be an issue that can cause understandable stress onboard the ship.

Social Isolation.

There's also something called social isolation and this can be a topic in itself. It is something that the UK P&I Club is looking at very closely. What it is, is where crew members are removing themselves from their fellow crew members. And this could be for a number of reasons. It could be that you may be the only person onboard that ship of a particular nationality, so communicating is very difficult.

But also we are finding that crew members are withdrawing themselves to their cabins because of technology and social media. Crew members now have the ability to watch movies on tablets and portable DVD devices and on their laptops, but also now we are seeing more ships having wi-fi onboard.

Access to the internet

This is extremely important for seafarers, in fact so much so recently it was announced that, through a review with seafarers, they actually said that having access to the internet and wi-fi onboard ships is the number one requirement. And they look at that even before looking at salaries and things like this. And this in itself means that crew members can have access to social media such as Facebook, Skype and general email.

Now when you think about the old days, seafarers kept their lives quite separate. So they had their home life and then they had their seafaring life. But whilst technology and the internet is a fantastic thing, what it actually means now is that you're having the ability to be able to bring any issues and problems that you may have previously left behind, onboard the ship.

So for example a seafarer could be out in the middle of the ocean and he might know that his kitchen sink back home is blocked, because he's received and email from his wife. Technology is fantastic, but we are seeing cases where, because of the access of internet and technology crew members are bringing those problems onboard with them.

And if you imagine it, being onboard a ship is a hugely stressful, dangerous environment and if you've got a seafarer who might be operating some sort or form of machinery or something like that, but in the back of his mind he's worried about an issue back home; he might not be focussing and the danger of that of course is that he could be putting both himself and his fellow crew members in danger.

Whilst the internet and technology is fantastic, it needs to be controlled, because otherwise we're going to see more and more crew members suffering from social isolation. And that in itself can only lead to greater mental health problems.

Talking about emotional and personal problems.

Finally, talk of emotional and personal problems can be extremely difficult for seafarers simply because it is such a macho environment. Crew members don't want to be seen as weak, they don't want to be seen to their superiors, the master or their reporting officer that they can't cope with the job. And this is something that's got to change. We need seafarers to be able to step forward and say: "I'm having problems". That's the first thing.

The second thing is fellow seafarers need to be able to identify when someone is having problems. They need to be able to identify those signs and that can be anything from someone just being withdrawn, looking tired, not eating properly. And for them to take responsibility themselves to maybe go to their reporting officer and say to them: "Do you know what, actually this crew member doesn't look right. There's something wrong, you might need to speak to him."

So there's two parts to that: the seafarer themselves taking responsibility in addressing their problems, recognising they've got a problem and addressing it. Having that confidence. And secondly; their fellow crew members taking responsibility in ensuring that something's done when maybe they're recognising that that individual may have a problem.

Now when you put all of these things together, no wonder why crew members can suffer from poor mental health. That in itself leads to things like fatigue, fatigue can lead to anxiety, anxiety can lead to depression and unfortunately depression can lead to suicide.

Neil Beckwith

Senior Claims Executive

UK P&I Club


Staff Author

Thomas Miller Group