Seafarers’ mental health: what’s the problem?

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It has long impressed me that, in shipping, we are all willing to pull together when the going gets tough. Shipowner and worker representatives might have huge disagreements over pay, flagging and working rosters, but both sides know that, in a crisis, they depend on each other. And they have been few crises like the present coronavirus pandemic.

So when its potential impact began to become clear, the International Chamber of Shipping set up a coronavirus welfare group, bringing together employer and management organisations with seafarer unions and welfare groups. And last Wednesday (20 May) they hosted a webinar for the shipping press to tell us how they were getting on.

It was moderated by Kuba Szymanski, secretary general of InterManager, who is someone I have met many times since I interviewed him when he started in that role in 2010. He is a man with robust views and is respected on both sides of the workforce divide because of it: although he represents employers through his day job, he is on the executive board of the ships’ officers professional body The Nautical Institute, he defends seafarers’ rights and fronted a high-profile survey of seafarers’ experience of enclosed space risks.

He has also been an editor, of a publication for Polish seafarers, so he knows how reporters work and he is not impressed by our efforts so far. He told us scribblers that there had been “fake news in the press” during this pandemic, for example about the difficulties of arranging crew changes in certain countries. He did not single out any of us specifically as the culprits, but he repeatedly challenged us to “go there; have a look.”

He returned to that theme in his response to a question from one reporter about seafarers’ mental health issues. Asked what the coronavirus welfare group was doing to protect seafarers’ mental health, instead of pushing at the open door the question offered to outline the group’s achievements in this area, his response was to tell us that the purpose of the call “is to get you guys behind us to start reporting truth. … Even some questions when asked can be very negatively tinted.”

Yet there are valid concerns about seafarers’ mental health and the five other panellists on the call all mentioned them, as you’ll see below, so it cannot be the case that reports about seafarer mental health issues are simply not true.

In fact, Kuba’s stance is more nuanced than his Trumpian ‘fake news’ complaint suggests. His real concern, it emerged, was that seafarers who are not in full contact with their families “read all sorts of information and can be really, really frightened by what they are reading,” which has a self-fulfilling effect on them, he suggested. It “creates a vicious circle [that] we need to break with positive news.”

So I asked him after the call whether the point he was making was not that press reports about seafarer mental health are incorrect, but that they are not as positive as he would like them to be. I think he agreed: “I am concerned about people speculating [that because] you are at sea you must be suffering from mental health issues,” he told me. He suggested that a typical seafarer would respond to that assumption by saying that “actually, I am not [suffering] and I feel so much more relaxed when I am [at sea] then when I am ashore.”

I do not know if that is the predominant view among seafarers – I have never served at sea myself – but if Kuba is right, then I guess this article is itself fuelling the fire of speculation that exasperates him. Please use the link at the end of this piece to tell me about your own experience.

The conference call covered much more than mental health issues, and I will return to its other themes in a separate report, but I will briefly summarise here what the other organisations represented on the call had to say on this topic.

Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping, reminded us that, in early March, the ICS had issued guidance on how to protect seafarers’ health at this time, with input from IMO, ILO, WHO and others. A second version of that is due for release at the end of May and it will include a whole new section on mental health and wellbeing.

She also referred to material that had been produced on behalf of the coronavirus welfare group by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), whose executive director, Roger Harris, reflected Kuba’s point about the importance of good communications in overcoming seafarers’ anxiety. “It’s important for companies to develop policies around mental wellbeing,” and to support seafarers that display mental health issues; some have set up helplines, he said.

ISWAN itself provides some resources, both on mental health and on avoiding the coronavirus, including a video by a counselling psychologist specifically to offer advice to seafarers about managing their mental health during this pandemic. I recommend it and suggest that ShipInsight readers consider bringing it to the attention of their crew.

Robert Verbist, president of the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA), said there was anxiety in the general population because of the pandemic but – also echoing Kuba’s point – this is especially the case “if you are a bit isolated from the rest of the world and your families.” This is exacerbated if seafarers have to stay on board for longer than expected and, for example, “you miss the funeral of your brother.”

Most seafarers are familiar with faith-based support services and many of those organisations are members of the International Christian Maritime Association. Its general secretary, Jason Zuidema, confirmed that “social isolation has impacts on our mental health” and that contact with other people is important. So its members are continuing with ship visits, at least to the gangway, to offer their support, for example by providing care packages and making shopping trips for crew.

Fabrizio Barcellona, head of actions at the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), reported that its helplines have received more than 1,000 calls in recent weeks and its inspectors have handled nearly 9,000 cases “mostly regarding seafarers’ inability to leave their ships and their emotional and mental states.” He also highlighted other medical concerns, relating to seafarers with non-coronavirus illnesses who cannot access medical facilities, “which is a something that is not acceptable.”

ICS shares his concern and believes that an international approach is needed to resolve this and, to get that moving, will host two webinars in conjunction with IMO and ILO this week (28 May). They are aimed at representatives from health and transport ministries worldwide to help them “really understand what the challenges are so that we can get proper medical assistance promptly and appropriately to ships that need it,” Natalie Shaw said.

It is governments that represent the biggest barrier to achieving this goal, she said. “We’ve done what we can to highlight this. We now need the governments to act.”

But how will they hear the message? That’s where we reporters come in. Our highlighting that the responsibility now rests with government “can make a huge difference to our seafarers,” she said, “so I ask you – I plead with you almost – to make the message that it’s governments now who need to come to the party.”

Well, I’ve done that. And if all ShipInsight readers with a level of authority to support ICS and its partners in their ambition now do their bit, seafarers will be happier and healthier and ships can keep operating.

• How significant are mental health concerns for seafarers? What single thing will most improve crew welfare? Email me now with your views.

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