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Be Mindful of Mental Health But Don’t Unfairly Stigmatize Seafarers

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By Captain Kuba Szymanski 12-21-2019 06:16:47

It is difficult not to notice the attention the issue of the mental health of seafarers has received in recent months. I am asking myself a question: is this good for the seafarers or bad?

It definitely raises the awareness of stakeholders throughout the maritime sector, and many would argue that this surely must be good for all concerned – but I beg to differ and here is why:

Yes awareness is important – but I am concerned that the way the issue is being portrayed makes it seem like it is widespread among crew members, compared to shore staff. This is incorrect, unfair and might actually be adding to seafarer’s stress. Imagine the stigma created around seafarers who feel unfairly targeted and may worry that industry colleagues, friends and family consider them to be emotionally unstable or even more likely to commit suicide. Parents of new cadets may be put off from supporting their young people to go to sea by this negative portrayal of the working environment on a ship.

In my opinion, seafarers are representative of the general population and suffer no greater mental health issues than people on shore – indeed I would argue that happiness surveys regularly indicate that seafarers are generally happy in their roles and are less likely to suffer mental health issues.

I believe that this misunderstanding has been created because scanty research has being misinterpreted or quoted out of context. Indeed, one opinion I heard at a conference – which was subsequently disproved – has been repeated many times in maritime media reports and become an accepted industry fact, despite it not being true.

Media coverage around the world and throughout all industries is so focused on mental health that it seems that we are in the midst of a global epidemic, particularly among the younger generations. Is this really the case? Suicide is, quite rightly, a concern for everyone – but I am unhappy at media coverage that I have seen which implies that suicide rates are higher among seafarers than the general population. This is simply not true. Indeed national and international research demonstrates that, particularly in countries which have high rates of suicide among young males (such as Russia, Ukraine, India, Poland, France, the U.S. and Canada), rates among seafarers are far lower than their national average. 

A number of empirical studies have found there is an increase in suicides following media reports of a suicide – a relationship referred to as “copycat” behavior. Based on such findings, the World Health Organisation has developed guidelines for the reporting of suicides in the media.

A recent study by Dr. Rafael Lefkovitz highlights the top three important medical conditions which seafarers suffer from are high cholesterol, high blood pressure and sleep disorder. Depression and anxiety are on the list but not at the top. So why are we taking things out of context? Why do we jump to discussing depression while practically ignoring these other three very important conditions? Can I dare to say because it suits the current agenda? 

I am absolutely not denying that depression is an important medical condition. What I am urging is for the figures to be considered in context so that seafaring as a profession is not incorrectly stigmatized.

Another recent study by Dr. Helen Sampson and Dr. Neil Ellis from the Seafarers International Research Centre (SIRC) on seafarer’s mental health and well-being, produced some interesting findings. Let me quote the top three conclusions: 

1. It is difficult to establish the extent of the problem of mental ill health (and suicide) among seafarers relative to comparable populations.
2. There is evidence of an increase in recent-onset anxiety and depression among serving seafarers.
3. There is evidence that in some roles seafarers may be particularly prone to emotional exhaustion and “burnout.”

To me, this demonstrates that more examination is needed before we reach conclusions about whether seafarers are at particular risk. We also need to properly investigate what seafarers themselves are worried about.

I believe that when seafarers are asked what is on their mind then the likely answers include:

• Will I get home on time? I promised my loved ones to be back at a certain time so they planned their lives accordingly. Will I let them down?
• Will I have employment after I complete this trip?
• Will I be paid on time? (Sadly, a recent study among Russian and Ukrainian seafarers revealed that 12 percent of them are still facing this issue)
• Will my vessel visit a high risk piracy area?
• Will I be criminalized for doing my job?
• Will I have to deal with ridiculous paperwork?
• How many inspections will I face this trip?

Yes seafarers do have worries and mental health issues but we need further, peer-reviewed investigations in order to establish how widespread and deep these are. It is up to the shipping industry as a whole to ensure that all seafarers are treated fairly and given the same rights and standards of living as their colleagues on shore, particularly when it comes to online connectivity.

Undeniably, loneliness can be a factor of our life at sea, but I don’t believe that this is a recent revelation, and I question why all of a sudden this has become a hot topic?  Yes many seafarers do prefer to have regular contact with their family and friends via access to online connections like email, social media etc. However, you may call me bonkers but, as a former serving captain I have seen that sometimes being away from terrestrial problems is what makes sea so attractive for many of us! 

I urge the maritime community to tread carefully when talking about seafarer mental health. Let’s look at the bigger picture, examine all the facts and hold discussions in measured terms, taking all factors into proper consideration. Then we can work to support those who need it and to remedy any situations which need to be improved. Let’s not unfairly stigmatize our professional colleagues at sea.

Captain Kuba Szymanski is Secretary General of InterManager.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.