While working on cargo and cruise ships, navigation officer Captain Dan Thompson fell into a depression made worse by isolation as he didn’t have anyone to talk about it for more than three years. Thompson confessed that the situation worsened over time because senior officers didn’t ask him about his mental health and weren’t able to provide the right support.

“If the officers were aware of my mental illness – what to look out for, the signs and symptoms, what could be done – I think they could have helped me,” Thompson said.

Thompson is far from being the only victim. A study carried out by maritime charity Sailor’s Society and Yale University showed that of over 1,000 ship personnel surveyed with symptoms of depression, 45% admitted they didn’t ask for help and only 21% said they had spoken to a colleague about what they were going through.

In situations similar to that of Thomson’s, director of employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping, Natalie Shaw believes the onus is on senior officers for ensuring a supportive environment onboard ships and that it’s important to have “tough conversations” when required. She says: “The one in charge of the ship needs to ask the right questions to people working onboard to find out what issues they’re facing and how they can best help in that situation.”

Global crew operations director at shipping company V Ships Andy Cook agrees with Shaw and believes seafarers must help each other and be able to read potential cues if a colleague is hitting the rocks. “It doesn’t take an expert to have a meaningful conversation, just takes a bit of common sense,” he says.

High rates of poor mental health at sea

“We’re talking about somebody at the workplace in the middle of the Pacific.”

While mental health is a subject which has gained much prominence across all sectors, the issue requires more attention for workers at sea as being away from home and, at times, being unable to confide in anyone can exacerbate these issues. The rate of suicide for international seafarers is triple that of shore workers, according to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

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As Sophia Bullard, crew health programme director at the liability insurance and risk management firm for ship owners, UK P&I, puts it, given the nature of offshore jobs, there is a high risk that seafarers “may lead a life of isolation”. Alongside that, being exposed to pressures such as long hours, difficult working conditions, financial concerns and fatigue makes them increasingly vulnerable to mental health issues.

Cook says ship owners must assess what the best methods are to ensure their crew are equipped with the tools to deal with distress “because we’re not talking about somebody at a workplace in the middle of London, we’re talking about somebody at the workplace in the middle of the Pacific.”

Being away from home is not the only reason. The escalated use of technology has been blamed for the increasing number of depressed patients.

Whilst increased access to communication facilities has enabled seafarers to retain greater contact with family members, opportunities to interact socially with crew members on-board have diminished, causing mental health issues to accrue. A survey by Futernautics revealed that 46% of seafarers believed increased access to new crew communications technologies reduced social interaction on board between crew members.

For instance, when Cook served at sea decades ago, the lack of technology forced cadets to interact with each other which helped in the development of a friendly working culture.

“Years ago there used to be more people on board to talk to, there was a social life, there used to be movie nights on board. The only way to watch a film was to go to the mess,” Cook says. “Today they have tablets to do that so most finish their shift and go straight to their cabin which is not ideal.”

Cook adds that in these situations, it can be difficult for colleagues to spot problems before they become unmanageable.

How technology can help

“Increased access to technology can dramatically help seafarers by enabling them to speak to their families regularly.”

While too much reliance on technology has impacted seafarers negatively, it can potentially solve various other issues such as loneliness. With the advent of digitalisation, companies capitalising on technologies such as Wi-Fi and 5G have skyrocketed resulting in better connectivity on ships.

“Increased access to technology can dramatically help seafarers by enabling them to speak to their families regularly,” Sandra Welch, deputy CEO of Sailors Society says.

In addition to allowing seafarers to keep in touch with their loved ones, Bullard says technology can serve as an outlet for training via online programs or apps. “Medical advice online is also very helpful. Seafarers are able to access the many self-help options, whether it be yoga or mindfulness, support forums or a dedicated seafarer helpline, all these services are now readily available on the internet via mobile, tablet or laptop,” she adds.

Sailor’s Society, for example, developed a Ship Visitor app which allows chaplains to report and share data in real-time, providing continuity of care for seafarers as they travel around the world.

The charity also offers an app called Wellness at Sea which assists seafarers to monitor their own mental health, giving them tips on how to keep mentally fit and signposting them to port welfare support so that they can get help if they need it.

While many shipowners are still to embrace technology to improve their crew’s mental health, Cook believes it will soon “become the norm”.

Despite its advantages, not all see technology as a complete solution. Shaw is apprehensive and believes too much reliance can cause it to be a bane rather than a boon. She deems the overuse of technology as a “disaster” adding that workers “should be very careful about what they’re actually using but nothing I think replaces the face to face contact [when dealing with someone suffering from ill-mental health].”

Shaw declares: “In an ideal world where everything would be in place you wouldn’t turn to tech to support you because you have another way of dealing with it.”

Bullard seconds Shaw and says that shipowners must “think out of the box and implement initiatives to appeal to all.” She adds: “These may include such steps as ensuring job swaps between ship and shore to improve communication, setting up short term goals to avoid boredom, reverse mentoring, and additional opportunities for social interaction.”

What’s been done so far?

“Sailor’s Society has set up a Crisis Response Network of more than 50 chaplains around the world.”

Charities have been increasingly implementing ways to tackle the issue by combining technology and human care. The IMO encourages ship owners to use the hashtag #SupportSeafarersWellbeing on social media, to share how they offer good working environments on board, and to be more upfront about how they address challenges in terms of seafarers’ mental wellbeing.

Charities such as Seafarers UK, The Mission to Seafarers and Apostleship of the Sea have helpline numbers aiming to aid those at sea suffering from any mental, psychological or emotional issues.

International charity Sailor’s Society has set up stress management tools for seafarers including a Crisis Response Network of more than 50 chaplains around the world who are trained to help seafarers in a trauma situation like piracy or abandonment.

The organisation launched ‘Not On My Watch’, a campaign aimed to tackle suicide and depression by breaking the taboos around it so that seafarers aren’t afraid to ask for help. In addition, the charity provides pre-departure training which helps seafarers understand the challenges they will face, giving them tools to cope during difficult periods.

Welch says that while technology can be useful in many ways – more so in the future – it cannot replace a personal touch. “Nothing compares to being in the room with someone: listening to them without distraction, allowing them the space to share how they’re feeling, reading their body language, giving them eye contact and counselling them face-to-face,” concludes Welch. “You can’t automate that.”