Mental health issues on the rise onboard ship

Mar 11 2021

Mental health problems among seafarers are getting worse rather than better with an industry report citing an increase in ships’ Master request for counselling support as Asian crew members top the list of nationalities most affected.

Analysis of data generated by Mental Health Support Solutions (MHSS) over the three months to the end of February 2021, showed that anxiety among those onboard ship remained a growing issue with burnout and depression being widely reported in the first month of the study. According to MHSS, burnout and depression require a sustained and long-term approach to treatment, so these problems are likely to rise again as they are re-triggered by events.


December saw an increase in counselling interaction and out of the three months, generated the highest level of critical incidents. Reports related to COVID-19 to do with anxiety, fatigue and worry about external factors, are also on the rise – a correlation that has been confirmed through MHSS’ interaction with vessel Masters.


There has also been an increased reporting of incidents by Eastern European crew, with the incidents spanning all severity levels from critical to low.


Charles Watkins, Managing Director and Clinical Psychologist at MHSS, said there was a trend towards the end of the reporting period for more moderate to high level incidents than previously seen. “There is some positive news as low-level incidents are being managed locally by techniques learnt through training and high-risk incidents escalated to MHSS.


“In February 2021, MHSS’ Russian team assisted a serious case of psychological disablement, restoring the affected seafarer (onboard) to full working capability and, in so doing, preventing a deviation and loss of service or interruption to the vessel in question,” he added.


According to the MHSS report, there is an increased continuous and repeated use of the MHSS mental health hotline from seafarers once initial contact is established. Seafarers are appreciating the follow-ups and sharing own ideas and worries with MHSS.


This likely diffuses a lot of situations amongst those who engage – before they arise or escalate.


Young cadets are a risk group for many vessels as they have less experience to cope with stressors at sea. Therefore, older more experienced seafarers must offer this group guidance and support.


There is an increase in interactions from Eastern-European ratings and officers. Given that this group is typically reluctant to interact, the underlying feeling of discontent is likely to be much higher – especially amongst those who do not interact with MHSS. MHSS encourages increased monitoring of these groups.


“We expect to see an increase in anxiety regarding COVID-related travel complications and limited crew changes,” Charles Watkins stressed.


The report issues its own recommendations:

• Young cadets should be paired with experienced seafarers to increase face-to-face interaction and decrease isolation. MHSS can provide a framework for a ‘buddy’ system

• Mental health normalization courses should be started at maritime academies and universities and MHSS is happy to run a joint initiative

• Increase focus/training on East-European crew (ratings and officers)

• Encourage and praise seafarers for reaching-out to MHSS through internal messaging. This will encourage others to interact

• Provide enhanced training for superintendents to increase the support provided to seafarers


Charles Watkins concluded: “Mental health directly impacts the safe operations of a vessel and organizations must have professional and confidential structures in place to treat mental health issues generated by work and external influences.


“Other factors such as religion, nationality and upbringing create additional stressors amongst crew interactions. Without a consistent approach to mental health issues, these are dealt with locally by the crew themselves – without training and with potentially dangerous consequences. Access to on-demand professional psychological support welcomed by crew and onshore staff,” he added.


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