Getting to the heart of the matter

The Mission’s WeCare initiative has put an emphasis on relationship guidance

The Mission to Seafarers port chaplains and welfare teams know only too well the challenges that seafarers face. They understand that long periods of time away at sea can leave crew vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, depression and, in severe instances, at higher risk of suicidal thoughts. However, they are also aware of the triggers. Often it is not life onboard that is the root cause, but rather dealing with pressures from home that can have the greatest impact on seafarers’ mental health, as families and friends struggle to grasp the realities of working at sea.

In January 2019, with the support of the UK P&I Club, MtS embarked on an ambitious new initiative called WeCare. The objective was to address an issue at the very heart of seafarer mental health and wellbeing: relationships. By providing free educational courses, the programme aimed to equip seafarers and their families with the right tools to combat the triggers of poor mental health and ultimately help them to prosper.

Tom O’Hare, project manager for WeCare, explains the philosophy behind the programme: “WeCare is all about giving seafarers and their families a space to talk about their feelings and emotions, and to discuss how they work together to provide support to one another when they’re apart.”

There are two strands to the programme: financial management and social communication. The idea is to help seafarers and their families identify the links between these issues and poor mental health, and to provide them with practical methods to deal with them. “What we are trying to do with WeCare is to give seafarers the tools to have a conversation with their loved ones before they leave about how they are going to communicate and manage finances. Through mental health resources and a support plan, we then help seafarers manage these issues while they’re on board.” Tom says WeCare is best described as a ‘360 self-care plan’: “The programme covers seafarers and their family’s welfare from the moment they prepare to leave for ship and throughout their time at sea. It’s about managing the long-distance communication and financial matters while they’re apart, but also providing assistance for when they’re brought together again.”

Understanding tech

When emails, social media platforms and text messages are the main means of communication with loved ones for months on end, it is easy to see how problems arise. Messages can be misinterpreted or news from home shared in a way which causes unnecessary stress and distraction, leaving seafarers at increased risk of accidents or mental health issues. The purpose of the WeCare Social Well- being course is to help seafarers and their families get a better understanding of the technology they are using and train them to communicate in a safe and meaningful way. Tom gives an example of one of the methods used in the course: “We have one technique called STAR, which stands for Stop, Think, Assess and Respond. It’s a way of taking a deep breath before firing off a message that may come across as more critical or upsetting than the person intended.”

Wife of a seafarer, Ms Rosy has helped to share the Mission’s WeCare message

The Social Wellbeing course was piloted in the Philippines, where MtS has for several years been developing a family support network for maritime communities. In November 2019, Tom flew to Aklan province to deliver WeCare to two local branches, known as ‘chapters’: “The dedication of our volunteers and solidarity of the community was truly overwhelming. WeCare delivered through the family network is all about community and having a joyous time. Ms Rosy, one of the chapter leaders and the wife of a seafarer, led a group of volunteers to arrange a banquet of fresh seafood, showcase traditional dances, and co- ordinate the attendance of over 100 seafarers and their families from across the region. Seeing family members from toddlers to grandparents engaging in WeCare and enjoying being a part of the Mission’s global family was truly inspiring.”

Marilou Abangan, a volunteer WeCare trainer and mother of a seafarer, gives her perspective on the impact that the training can have: “The programme has been a great help to seafarers and their families. Nowadays, the internet is creating a huge impact and affects people in different ways, that’s why guidelines in proper handling of social media are very helpful. It intends to protect and preserve relationships and family.”

Financial help

Launched this year, the other key strand of the programme is financial management. As MtS research found, there are a number of financial difficulties which seafarers and their families typically experience, including pressure to share their earnings with a wide circle of family and friends, and planning and saving for the future.

The course aims to help seafarers and their families identify the links between money and mental health and provide them with coping strategies such as budgeting. As Tom explains: “The purpose of the financial wellbeing course is to motivate and empower seafarers and their families to take control of their finances. It encourages participants to explore their attitudes and beliefs concerning money, to understand their current habits and the effects they have on their lives, and to learn positive financial management techniques. By empowering participants to manage their money, we can reduce the impact financial insecurity has on their mental and physical health.” Tom explains the financial management side of the WeCare programme in more detail on the following page.

Last year also saw WeCare develop into an internationally recognised programme. By the close of the year, the Social Wellbeing course was in full delivery and reaching over 2,000 seafarers and their families per quarter. This was of course until the Covid-19 global pandemic and subsequent restrictions put a stop to face-to-face workshops. Tom comments: “2019 was a really successful year. We saw that the workshops worked and we were able to deliver WeCare to both seafarers and their families, reaching over 6,000 people. The feedback was showing us that seafarers and families were feeling more confident about having challenging conversations with home. Sadly, 2020 brought an end to all of this.”

E-learning launch

E-learning will launch early next year

The pandemic has, however, presented opportunities for the programme. “We knew we had to act quickly to present WeCare to seafarers,” says Tom. “That’s why we’re transitioning to e-learning, which allows us to reach seafarers directly while they are on board ship. We’re able to address issues such as homesick- ness and miscommunication with loved ones through our online courses and downloadable mental health resources. In addition, crews have access to our team of MtS Chaplains who have training and knowledge of WeCare.”

Thanks to the support of the UK P&I Club, the TK Foundation, and Prime Training, e-learning versions of the two courses will launch early next year. For family groups, meanwhile, the focus is now on webinars, with one of the latest catering for 105 members of the Magsaysay Family Club.

Lala Tolentino, country manager for the Philippines Family Network and WeCare trainer, sees many positives to these online sessions for families: “Meeting people virtually who come from across the nation at one time is such a thrill. Hearing their experiences on how couples keep their relationships amidst the distance, on how families remain bonded, on how someone realised the power of communication via social media, are just some of the discussions I look forward to in every training session. Learning from the participants and at the same time sharing the programme with them is really fulfilling and validates our work, especially during this uncertain time.”

Above all, WeCare is about continuity of care. As Tom reflects: “WeCare is more than just a programme or a workshop that they do one day in Manila, in their training centre or online. It’s a continuous cycle of providing mental health and wellbeing resources to seafarers throughout their time at sea.”

Although 2020 has presented challenges, the move towards e-learning and webinars means WeCare now has the potential to reach thousands of seafarers and family members from any part of the world, whether on ship or at home, and at a time when mental health support is needed more than ever.

To find out more about the WeCare programme and how to get involved, please click here.