ISWAN’s helplines report quarterly highs for mental health challenges

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The final quarter of 2023 saw steep increases in the number of contacts relating to mental health concerns across the range of helplines operated by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN).

In its final quarterly infographic of 2023, ISWAN highlights a 44% quarter-on-quarter increase in contacts (calls or messages) relating to mental health challenges. Between October and December 2023, ISWAN received 128 contacts relating to psychological difficulties, up from 89 contacts in the previous quarter. This represents the highest quarterly total since the current helpline reporting system was established in 2019. SeafarerHelp and Yacht Crew Help, ISWAN’s free, confidential helplines for seafarers, both registered the highest number of quarterly contacts relating to mental health, with increases of 46% and 58%, respectively.

Experiencing a form of abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination and violence was the issue that was most closely associated with mental health difficulties. Just over 13% of seafarers who contacted ISWAN’s helplines in relation to concerns about their mental wellbeing between October and December 2023 also reported experiencing a form of abuse at sea, including sexual abuse or harassment, physical abuse, or discrimination on the basis of their nationality. Some seafarers reported being required to work in highly stressful conditions in excess of worktime regulations. Indeed, 11% of seafarers reported that fatigue was a factor in their mental health difficulties.

Whilst working conditions were a key factor in the mental health challenges of many seafarers contacting ISWAN’s helplines, around 11% of seafarers reported that issues in their personal life were impacting their mental health. Seafarers turned to ISWAN for support to cope with difficulties such as the strain placed on relationships by long periods of separation.

ISWAN’s helpline data consistently indicates that women seafarers are disproportionately impacted by mental health challenges at sea. In quarter four, where the gender identity of the seafarer was known, 24% of people contacting ISWAN’s helplines in relation to concerns about their psychological wellbeing were women and 75% were men. Overall during the quarter, 9% of people who contacted the helpline identified as women, and 89% as men.

ISWAN’s helpline data suggests that women are also more likely than men to have experienced a form of abuse at sea, which is one key factor in the higher rates of mental health issues among women seafarers.

Simon Grainge, Chief Executive of ISWAN, said: ‘The fact that contacts to ISWAN’s helplines relating to mental health were the highest on record in quarter four is a strong indication that although COVID-19 is behind us, life remains very difficult for many seafarers. There is now much greater understanding across the maritime sector of the specific challenges of maintaining good mental health at sea.

“There have also been very encouraging steps forward in terms of developing the kinds of leadership culture that will support seafarers’ wellbeing more effectively. However, ISWAN’s helpline data shows that there is still some way to go in terms of ensuring that all seafarers have safe and respectful working environments that are protective of their health and wellbeing.’

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