31 Mar


Coronavirus and seafarer mental health – the good news

31 Mar, 2021

There’s no vaccine against poor mental health.

As so many have said, we live in unprecedented times. First, we have been confronted with a physical health crisis, followed by a hard-hitting economic crunch. So it’s no surprise that we now face the stark reality of a possible mental health crisis.

We don’t have to research academic journals to recognise the strain the pandemic has put on our mental health; we just have to reflect on our own anxieties and experiences over the last year. Being locked up, isolated, socially distanced, uncertain and anxious is a reality we are now all too familiar with. As a result, mental health issues have been catapulted into the spotlight like never before.

For seafarers, these conditions are nothing new. Life at sea can feel like an extreme version of lockdown, where crews are confined to a ship for months on end, unable to even see their loved ones face to face. Based on the rise in calls to the Sailors’ Society helpline and seafarers expressing anxiousness and sadness, it is evident that the mental health of seafarers has further deteriorated during the pandemic. But it is also true that the pandemic has highlighted a problem for our industry that is as old as the industry itself.

For the last 11 years, the Wellness at Sea programme has been advocating a holistic approach to seafarer training, while emphasising the importance of mental health support. A new PHD research report, from the Rhodes University in South Africa, confirms the impact Wellness at Sea is making in the industry. Researcher Lauren Brown conducted the analysis with two groups of crew. One had attended a Wellness at Sea workshop over the last two years and was part of a Wellness at Sea peer support programme, while the other had not attended any kind of training on wellness or mental health.

Two specific aspects of the report are encouraging and confirm the testimonials we have received from seafarers over the last decade. Firstly, nearly 10 per cent fewer seafarers who had taken part in Wellness at Sea reported feeling anxious or worried at work compared to those who had not attended any wellness training (43.1 per cent vs 52.8 per cent), while 14 per cent fewer of the wellness-trained crew reported feeling sad at work (27 per cent vs 41.2 per cent).

Secondly, it shows that the programme is significantly changing and challenging perceptions and stereotypes of mental health. Seafarers who had been through Wellness at Sea showed a better understanding of mental health and were less likely to stigmatise mental illness. For example, nine per cent agreed with the statement “I would be embarrassed if a person in my family became mentally ill”, versus 50 per cent of the comparison group, while 26.8 per cent of the trained seafarers were embarrassed by the term “psychological disorder”, versus 55.6 per cent of the comparison group.

So, where are we as an industry? To purposefully answer this question, it’s worth going back in history and reflecting on the development of the Wellness at Sea programme.

In 2010, Wellness at Sea was a first of its sort in the maritime industry: a comprehensive, holistic training programme to support mental health. I vividly remember a speaking engagement in London in 2011, where a representative from a company challenged me, saying that mental health and wellbeing was beyond their scope of responsibility. The topic of wellbeing was a new concept and, as one commentator described it back then, often seen as ‘nancy pancy stuff seafarers don’t care for’. What followed was a slow and tedious period of pushback.

But then some early adopters saw the perceived benefits and got on board. This slowly built awareness and more role players got curious. The early majority, who are mainly pragmatists, are now following suit as there is increased evidence on how wellbeing can increase productivity and ultimately influence the bottom line.

While the pandemic has taken its toll on seafarer mental health, it has also offered hope for the future, by pushing us to a tipping point where the importance of wellbeing cannot be denied. As more and more research is done, like the study above, the conservative late adopters will join in, the laggards will eventually throw in the towel and join the choir as they recognise the vital importance of seafarer wellbeing to our industry.

Yes, a lot needs to be done, but we have come a long way.

About Johan Smith, Wellness at Sea programme manager, Sailors' Society

Johan leads Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea programme, a pioneering initiative which empowers seafarers to prepare and keep physically and mentally fit for life at sea (sailors-society.org/wellness-at-sea). Since its launch, the Wellness at Sea programme has grown to become one of the leading wellness interventions for the shipping industry, benefitting thousands of seafarers every year and winning a Safety at Sea award for Best Crew Welfare Programme and a SeaTrade Award for Investment in People. Johan has worked with seafarers for many years, previously serving as a port chaplain for six years in Cape Town, South Africa. It was during this time that he became aware of the challenges many seafarers face as a result of life at sea. Johan studied theology and is also a qualified social worker.

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