As a former law-enforcement officer with a background in psychology, I understand first-hand the importance of mental health, particularly in environments of high risk and pressure. That is why I’m determined to bring attention to the mental health of seafarers.
Seafarers play a crucial role in global trade and, while seafaring is an essential profession, it is often underappreciated, lonely and stressful.
Working onboard a ship often involves immense mental and physical demands that are not comparable to those experienced by onshore professions. Seafarers are unique in that they live and work in close quarters with only their colleagues for company, making them a highly isolated working group. As they spend so much time with their colleagues, it is important that these relationships are positive, and there is cohesion amongst the teams. Unfortunately, research suggests that there are frequent conflicts between and among the different ranks and departments. Coupled with long periods away from home and families, these conflicts can lead to increased loneliness and homesickness.
In addition, seafarers often work long hours performing physically demanding tasks, without adequate rest periods. Reports from the Seafarers Happiness Index have consistently shown that many seafarers feel pressured to work excessive hours. Their typical “watch system” schedule can reduce the amount and quality of their sleep, which is further worsened by factors like different time zones during long voyages, long and irregular work hours, high job demands and pressures, and exposure to physical environmental factors such as ship engine noise, vibration and not least, extreme weather.
As we continue to recover from the pandemic, it’s important to recognise the significant impact it had on seafarers’ mental health. Many seafarers were stranded at sea for months beyond their contracted time and unable to leave their ships or return home due to port restrictions and quarantine measures. This prolonged isolation has led to heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. The current spotlight on these challenges and limitations faced by seafarers comes at a crucial time. The maritime industry should prioritise the mental well-being of seafarers, just as it prioritises their physical health and safety.
There are vital effective ways the maritime industry can support seafarers’ mental health:
Raising awareness about mental health and encourage open dialogue. Seafarers need to know that it is okay to talk about their mental health, and where and how to seek help when needed. This is where mental health training and education to seafarers and their colleagues come in; this training would equip them with the knowledge and skills to recognise signs of mental distress in themselves and their colleagues, and learn how to respond appropriately.
Provide access to mental health resources and support services. This can include access to telemedicine and counselling services while at sea. Through video calls, phone calls, and even email, seafarers can receive therapy, mental health support, and crisis intervention services while at sea. By having access to counselling services, seafarers can receive support and advice to help them cope with stressors such as homesickness, loneliness, and relationship problems.
Improve the living conditions onboard ships. This includes providing sufficient rest hours and recreational activities, and promoting healthy lifestyles. Adequate rest helps seafarers recover from their demanding jobs and maintain optimal mental health. Recreational activities provide a much-needed break from work, allowing them to unwind, maintain social connections, and reduce loneliness and boredom. Lastly, promoting a healthy lifestyle by encouraging healthy eating habits, exercise, and other self-care practices can reduce the risk of mental health issues caused by poor lifestyle choices.
The mental health of seafarers is a critical issue that needs to be addressed within the maritime industry. Seafarers play a vital role in keeping the global economy moving, and their well-being should be a top priority. By prioritising the mental health and well-being of seafarers, and taking proactive measures to support their mental health, the maritime industry can ensure that seafarers can continue to work effectively and safely.
The critical issue of seafarers’ mental health can no longer be ignored, and it’s high time the maritime industry takes immediate action and chart a course towards better mental health support for seafarers.