Seafarer mental health – from a management perspective

Jun 25 2021

While we all care about seafarer mental health, working out how to tackle it from a management perspective is another challenge. Charles Watkins from Mental Health Support Solutions in Hamburg shared some ideas.

We all understand seafarer mental health is important, but working out how shipping companies should tackle it as part of the management of their business is another issue.


We spoke to Charles Watkins, managing director of Mental Health Support Solutions in Hamburg, which provides maritime specific support, about how he thinks tanker company management should handle the issue.


For shipping companies, mental health issues can be seen as a T shape – there are a broad range of issues relating to the general culture, which affect just about everybody, and then there’s the deep traumatic issues which may occur after a specific event.


One of the most useful things shipping companies can do is keep in regular contact with vessels to have a conversation specifically about mental health issues, he says.


“We all have struggles in our life it is part of the shared human experience. We all suffer from cases of anxiety, depressive episodes.”


Companies can hang up posters on ships, giving out the message that nearly everybody needs help at some point in their lives, it is OK not to be OK, it is OK to ask for support.


Companies can also make it easier for seafarers to talk to someone, he says. It can be a similar process to encouraging seafarers to speak up when they see something unsafe.


Mental health can go together with supporting seafarers’ physical health, in supporting them in having a healthy diet and being able to exercise, he says. “They all go together.”


MHSS staff spend time onboard vessels and offshore platforms. “We get to know the life of the seafarer. How it is to sleep there, live there, eat there, at least to a point where we can kind of understand where they are coming from.”


“We understand the environment, the everyday walk to work and back, the social room, the things they say are important.”


“We talk to them on the vessel, we get a lot of feedback.”


The practice is based in Hamburg, but has associate consultants around the world.




One of the biggest causes of poor mental health, which is not given much attention, is harassment and bullying, which is widespread in some parts of the maritime industry, Mr Watkins says.


“We find out more and more, this is a very normal thing that happens, a thing that’s constantly happening. It’s very sad to find that out, so many people told us. They suffer silently as they move through the ranks.”


“Yesterday we had a webinar, a lot of seafarers talked about that issue.”


“That really destroys motivation, really decreases the focus and concentration when you’re trying to work.”


“You go with this culture of bullying and harassment, you don’t think about it, you kind of endure it.”


“No-one should suffer because they are being bullied and harassed through their entire contract, that’s horrible.”


These behaviours can be embedded in maritime cultures, which have been around as long as there has been a shipping industry.


It is not usually possible to force any culture to change, but you can “allow the culture to change itself if you can accept the right impulses,” to see what is right and what isn’t, to say, we’re not going to take this anymore,” he says.


When seafarers “realize this is something they can actively influence, they don’t feel helpless.”


“They are strengthening themselves, their ability to change their environment. That’s when things change, that’s when people start allowing themselves to believe that change can happen.”


“It is a learning process. It is also a process of slowly adopting a healthier communications strategy.”


“It is a difficult challenge, someone has to do it, we need to start that process.”




Sadly, traumatic events can happen at any time on vessels.


“We often go to vessels after something has happened and administer psychological first aid,” he says.


This can involve looking for symptoms of post-traumatic stress.


“Sometimes it can take time until symptoms come up, there’s a delayed affect.”


The company makes what it calls a “Mental Health First Aid Kit”, with support ideas for people who are not professionals, which they can apply in the event of a trauma.


It is possible that a crewmember could be given basic training, in the same way as people have first aid training. This person “knows the basics, who is able to implement certain strategies before we [as professional support] get there.”


This person could offer emotional support, listening when people talk things through. This person could also recognize people in distress, or otherwise make sure people are fit for duty. It would be a role suitable for “people who are naturally good at communicating,” he said. They could even have a title like “mental health officer”.




One of the services MHSS offers to shipping companies is a 24 hour helpline, where seafarers are able to talk to trained psychologists in their own language about any concerns they might have.


The calls are answered by MHSS associates, all trained psychologists, based in countries including India, China, Singapore, Philippines, Russia, Ukraine, South America, and UK.


Just having the service available “gives them ease of mind, even if they don’t use it right away. It is there if they do need help. It gives them the option to debrief, to decompress,” Mr Watkins says.


“They appreciate the company taking care of them, in an aspect that is very important but maybe not often talked about. It makes mental health seem less of a taboo subject.”


People do not need to give their name or the name of the vessel. They can be provided with mental health tips, or a counsellor can talk through their feelings and normalize feelings of anxiety or frustration.


Seafarers can be asked what would make them feel better. They can be encouraged to speak to family and friends, and also consider if there is someone who has helped them in the past, in a relationship which can be reactivated.


Seafarers might be encouraged to connect more with people onboard. Sometimes the availability of internet communication can discourage people onboard from talking to each other. The counselling can re-emphasise the value of face to face communication, he says.


While the company may not be able to do much when crew are unable to leave a vessel, the counselling service can help. “It is about having the possibility to talk about these things – the anger, sadness, depression, having the ability to get it all out,” Mr Watkins says.


Some companies using the service have already seen a decrease in accidents, he says. Other companies have directly made returns through being able to avoid diverting the ship to enable a mentally unwell seafarer to go home. The service has also helped resolve conflicts between crew members which threatened to escalate.


“The feedback we get from seafarers that use our services, they really appreciate the fact that this is there for them.”


“Not everyone will say they need it or think it is relevant. They say it is good for the people who need it.”


Other services


The company also offers online mental health screening tests suitable for seafarers. These tests ask questions which help evaluate if somebody suffers from depression.


If something ‘jumps out’ in the survey, “we contact the seafarer to see what exactly is going on, how do we solve this problem, is he really ready to go out to sea,” he says.


MHSS also provides leadership coaching, to masters and officers, which may be particularly appropriate if there are problem signs.


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