I have been a bit preoccupied for the past couple of weeks writing about some of the significant discussions that took place during last month’s ShipInsight conference, so this is my first opportunity to write about a topic that has seen some troubling developments during that period: seafarers’ mental health.
I mention it in connection with the conference because I believe it is important to bear it in mind in any discussion about autonomous ships, which came up in one of our sessions. In one concept, such ships would not be unmanned but would have a small crew, for example to deal with machinery breakdowns while the ship itself is guided either automatically or from a shore-based control room.
It will be difficult to recruit seafarers to take those posts. It is not much of a career ambition and, with little human contact, I believe there would be a considerable risk that those crewmembers would become bored and depressed, with mental health issues or worse as possible outcomes.
Just a week after the conference, the Sailors Society charity issued a statement on 20 February about an image that had been published online of a seafarer’s suicide. The incident “highlights just one case of many that go unreported around the world every year,” the organisation said. It also referred to a survey it had carried out with Yale University that showed that 26% of the seafarers in its sample showed signs of depression and a quick Google search will show how big a problem mental health at sea is.
Two days later, the society was highlighting another crewing problem: violence. It reported three knife attacks at sea in as many weeks, including one in which two people had been killed and, at the time of the report, six others were missing.
But my comments here are not empty ‘something must be done’ hand-wringing, because things are being done. The Sailors Society, seafarers unions and other organisations provide online advice and there is also training available. P&I clubs, managers and others are also giving this increasing attention.
These latest reports reached my inbox not long after I had spoken to Raal Harris, managing director of KVH Videotel, which launched a film last year about seafarer mental health. It made no charge for this material; “it is such an important subject,” Mr Harris said, and “we knew it would get spread further and wider if it was a free title.”
But he is also aware that one of the factors that can affect seafarers’ moods is the trend towards solitary activities – watching videos on laptops, for example. This has an impact on the very training that Videotel was traditionally known for: showing training material to a group. A lot of its material is now delivered as computer-based training, which has many benefits, “but you have to be careful you don’t lose that group activity,” he said.
He believes – and I agree with him – that encouraging the right atmosphere on board so that there is discussion around training topics makes for a safer ship, because concerns can be aired and deficiencies addressed.
It was good to see IMO putting its weight behind this need for better crew wellbeing by making it the subject of its Day of the Seafarer last June. In a video message to mark the campaign, IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim spoke about “the growing momentum in shipping to address this important issue”.
Just a few weeks ago, on February 18, Stephen Conley, global maritime segment lead at the satellite service provider SES, tackled the subject of connectivity and wellbeing in a blog post. He acknowledged that the heightened interest in connectivity “has revealed polarised views on occasions” about its effect on crew welfare. As an example, he compared the benefits of connectivity in opening up access to friends and family with the potential for “social anxiety through a fear of missing out on land activities”.
Not surprisingly, he came down on the ‘benefits’ side of that debate, but he had some powerful statistics in his hand: The Mission to Seafarers researched a ‘happiness index’ in early 2018 and its report “noted that virtually every single written response from seafarers was positive when it came to the pleasure and enjoyment that being in contact with home brings,” Mr Conley wrote.
True, but the mission’s research used an online survey tool, so the views of any seafarers with little or no internet access would not have been included in its outcome. Instead of sitting in their cabins completing on-screen questionnaires, they may have been socialising with their fellow crew members and developing the healthy and safe environment that can encourage mutual support and reduce mental stress.
If there is a solution to the problem of seafarer wellbeing, it must be down a road that starts with recognition: that there is a problem, of individuals who may be vulnerable and that it’s OK to talk and address it. If you have experience to share or other comments to make on this important topic, email me now.