Seafarer mental health branded ‘a serious concern’ as part of Mental Health Awareness Week

12th May 2017

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, The Mission to Seafarers is highlighting the mental health challenges faced by seafarers and calling on the industry to offer wider services that could help safeguard their welfare.

Much of the work undertaken by the Mission to Seafarers globally involves mental health support, from offering the ability to contact families, to being on-hand to support seafarers struggling with depression and fatigue, and even providing support after cases of attempted suicide.

It’s not uncommon for merchant seafarers and cadets to spend between six months and a year working away from home, unable to see their families. During this time the majority of seafarers are unable to rely on access to the internet to use platforms such as Skype or WhatsApp to maintain contact with loved ones. A recent survey by the Seafarers Trust reported that as many as 77 per cent of seafarers have their internet access limited to email or text, or have no access to internet on board at all.

Tim Tunley, a port chaplain covering Scotland, who spends a considerable proportion of his welfare visits dealing with mental health issues commented:

“The mental health of seafarers is a serious ongoing concern. In recent years, the merchant shipping industry has undeniably become more pressurised, with increasing amounts of paperwork and shorter turnaround time in ports. While many owners and operators do look to offer suitable support to their seafarers, incidents of fatigue, poor internet connectivity and a lack of shore time are still prevalent, placing a huge strain on the mental welfare of seafarers.”

As well as workplace pressures and loneliness, it is not uncommon to see crew members suffering from cultural isolation.

“The workforce of merchant seafarers is very multinational. While this has its advantages, there are occasions during which seafarers can suffer from cultural isolation. The happiness and mental welfare of a crew often depends on how well that crew gets on and works together, and if there are language barriers and a lack of shared cultural references, it can be very difficult for crews to form a strong bond.”

An example of this is an English-speaking captain taking the opportunity to discuss football, motorbikes and other hobbies when we visit his ship. Although his crew is English-speaking and can organise the running of the vessel, they struggle with conversational English, and lack a shared cultural background.”

Our main role is to act as a companion when the seafarer leaves the vessel, and provide somebody for the individuals to talk to. We also signpost them towards help from online resources such as the Big White Wall, or ISWAN. Importantly, we worry about individuals. That it falls to us to do this demonstrates that more needs to be done to raise awareness of this issue, and more fundamentally, to tackle it.”

Ben Bailey, Assistant Director of Advocacy at the Mission to Seafarers added: “This Mental Health Awareness Week we call on owners and operators to review the pressure put on crews and to ensure that suitable support mechanisms are in place. All of our chaplains are trained to respond to a range of mental health issues and help seafarers deal with the stresses and strains of life at sea. We urge any seafarer to contact one of our chaplains in port who will be able to provide a listening ear and support.”

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