All at Sea: Mental health issues on board ship
There are over 52,000 commercial vessels operating out at sea, often for months at a time. The work requires mental toughness – the hours are long and physically demanding with split shifts and military-precision routine. The economic struggles faced by the maritime industry have also meant the reduction of crew numbers and an increase in work hours. All these factors contribute to physical and mental fatigue.
Happiness and mental welfare often depend on how well people get on and work together but, with most crews made up of a multitude of international, language barriers and cultural differences sometimes lead to seafarers being unable to form strong bonds with their colleagues. This results in feelings of isolation and loneliness and mental health issues have risen dramatically in recent years.
Two-thirds of people will experience some form of mental health issue at some point in their lives but for those working offshore, that figure is significantly higher. The suicide rates among seafarers have tripled since 2014 so something needs to be done about breaking the ‘macho bravado’ attitude adopted by many of those in the maritime industry towards mental health.
The question we need to start asking isn’t: ‘what are we doing about this epidemic?’ but rather: ‘what can I do to help?’ The time for preventative measures is over, we need to proactively support our friends and colleagues.
Being away from home for six months to a year is very common in our industry. Being unable to see family and friends is difficult, especially when sub-standard internet connectivity prevents people from keeping in close contact. In a recent study, the Seafarers’ Trust reported that as many as 77% of crew members have strictly limited internet access or no internet access at all. Combine this with a quicker turnaround in ports and there’s no wonder that many seafarers feel trapped onboard ships with no access to the outside world.
Where do we go from here?
Getting guidance and support from a medical professional as early as possible is the best way to tackle mental health issues. While MLC 2006 states that ship-owners should provide prompt and adequate medical care that’s comparable as far as possible to that of workers onshore, the average merchant vessel has fewer than 25 crew so it’s not obligatory to have a doctor onboard. Therefore, most seafarers don’t have access to a professional who’s capable of helping them.
Until legislation is changed to better support those at sea, the problem of mental health will remain hidden away and out of sight.
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