A clinical psychologist has challenged the maritime industry to stop making empty promises about helping to improve seafarers’ welfare and mental health.
Occasions like World Mental Health Day (10 October) give shipping companies an excuse to promote themselves as caring employers that want the best for their crew members, according to Charles Watkins.
However, the founder and managing director of Mental Health Support Solutions (MHSS) – which provides professional psychological guidance to the maritime sector – believes a “significant number” of businesses fail to act after publicly committing to aiding seafarers’ mental wellbeing.
“We see news stories, press statements and social media posts from businesses in this industry talking about the need to help crew members that may be suffering psychologically after a year or more at sea,” Mr Watkins said.
“But those same companies then do little to provide mental health support to seafarers, despite making all the right noises on days like World Mental Health Day. Instead of just talking, they need to do something tangible that actually helps crew members who are physically and mentally exhausted from working throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Mr Watkins added that while some businesses fail to deliver on their promises, others take seafarers’ wellbeing seriously.
“The companies we work with understand the challenges of life at sea, such as working long hours, being away from family and living in unappealing accommodation, and the effects these issues can have on someone’s mental health,” he said.
“Such organisations are avant-garde in their thinking and sincere about wanting to help and support crew members. Unlike other businesses in this industry, our clients don’t just talk the talk – they walk the walk.”
The number of seafarers calling MHSS’ 24/7 support line increased by 60% from April to June 2021 compared to the previous quarter. An MHSS report attributed most cases to the pandemic’s impact on mental health, with anxiety, bullying or crew conflict causing stress among mariners.
The report said the impact of Covid-19 on mental health was increasing with more cases expected as extended contracts, the crew change crisis and worries over family members back home getting Coronavirus contributed to seafarers’ stress levels.
Training for all onboard and shoreside staff, to identify anyone at risk from mental illness and how to respond appropriately, is one measure shipping companies can take to support seafarers’ wellbeing.
MHSS also recommends teaching positive communication skills to captains and officers, which strengthens crew cohesion and creates an environment where mariners can ask questions or raise issues, leading to fewer mistakes. Moreover, such a workplace helps seafarers to stay focused on their tasks and empowers them to respectfully challenge unsafe behaviour, the MHSS report said.