The seafarer mental health crisis runs deeper than training
Seafarer mental health is a hot topic right now, and rightly so. When you consider the many dangers that come with working on a ship, it is incredible to think that suicuide is the leading cause of death at sea. Statistically you are just as likely to develop a mental health problem ashore as you are at sea (around 25% of us in any year), but the suicide rate at sea is nearly four times higher than ashore. It is clear from those statistics that what’s lacking is intervention rather than prevention.
There have been a number of initiatives started recently to tackle this, including Sailors Society’s Not on My Watch campaign, and ISWAN’s mental health awareness training. Both programmes should be applauded for raising awareness of and providing practical solutions for dealing with mental health issues among seafarers. The realisation that mental wellbeing is just as important as physical wellbeing is a welcome one, and training everyone in the industry to pick up on the signs is incredibly important. There is a question mark, however, over what happens next. When a crew member exhibits the signs of a serious mental health problem, what support is put in place? How are the rights of those seafarers protected?
I recently attended a seafarer mental health awareness conference run by the Maritime Wellness Institute. We heard how the UK Armed Forces support personnel with serious mental health issues. If someone is suffering to the point that they cannot perform safety critical duties, they are reassigned to a non critical role. If they are suffering to the point where they cannot work at all, they are placed on sick leave with full pay and support until they are well enough to work. For the vast majority of seafarers, admitting to a mental health problem that is serious enough for them to be signed off will mean that their income stops along with it. They won’t be able to support themselves or their family, and whatever issues are affecting them will likely be exacerbated.
If we are serious about tackling mental illness at sea we need to evolve the conversation. As well as tackling the perception of mental health and giving seafarers the tools to support each other, we have to realise that responsibility for our seafaring colleagues extends beyond the gangway. The link between poverty and mental health problems is well documented. Providing stability and security to people when they need it most is a key factor in their ability to make a long term recovery.
Some level of income protection when unwell is something we take for granted when working ashore. Those basic rights should be extended to our colleagues at sea. No matter how much training you offer, no matter what support you put in place on your ships, if you employ people at sea but don’t offer them the same basic protections as you would if they were employed ashore, you are part of the problem not the solution.