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Suicide and Seafarers

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A new study by Yale University has identified potentially dangerous levels of depression, anxiety and suicide risk among the world’s seafarers. The survey of the state of seafarers’ mental health exposes risks and proposes actions that can be taken to address the problem.

HOW DO YOU FEEL?

Commissioned by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust charity, the study drew on a sample of 1,572 seafarers across the world, of different ranks, on different vessels, with different flags.

It found that within the previous two weeks of completing the survey a quarter of them had suffered depression, 17 percent had experienced anxiety and 20 percent had contemplated suicide or self-harm.

The Seafarer Mental Health Study also highlighted a link between depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and a greater likelihood of injury and illness on board. Something which has long been suspected, but now has been proven.

Have you suffered from feelings of anxiety or depression?

The idea that 20% of seafarers have felt suicidal is simply astonishing, and aside from the many other findings within the report, is something which warrants immediate action. It shows that despite support and access to welfare services that the very profession of seafaring is causing mental ill-health.

Well, there can be no shying from the issue any longer. Seafarers are suffering, and it is time that the industry did more to help.

FACTORS OF DEPRESSION

The survey identified the following factors as being associated with feelings of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts:

  • Lack of adequate training
  • An uncaring work environment
  • Exposure to violence or threats of violence
  • Co-existing medical conditions (including cardiac disease and sleep disorders)
  • Low job satisfaction
  • Ill health

With so many serious and fundamental issues, it seems clear that somewhere we are failing to address the very basics of life at sea. Why aren’t we training crews well enough? Why and how can there be an uncaring environment? How can violence and threats be part of a modern workplace? While the matter of job satisfaction is another which needs attention.

It seems incredibly troubling that this is how the life of a seafarer can be. We have the Maritime Labour Convention, and no end of rules, regulations and management systems. Yet all these seem to have done is mask the problem. Well, there can be no shying from the issue any longer. Seafarers are suffering, and it is time that the industry did more to help.

WIDER FIXES

Having examined the extent of the problems, the study includes a number of recommendations for maritime training institutes, companies, employers, P&I clubs and trade unions, including:

  • Enhance support for cadets, ensure proper training and make improvements to complaints procedures
  • De-stigmatise mental health within company culture
  • Recognise and address the need for interventions to address workplace violence, including by defining and measuring violence in the seafaring workplace; involving key stakeholders to identify sources and strategies to reduce workplace violence; and by supporting research in intervention evaluation, with dissemination of results to governing bodies, registries, unions, and shipping companies.

More support for seafarers is needed.

While they all seem like sensible measures, surely there needs to be more. We are trying to fix the wrong end of the problem, and the slew of “wellness” initiatives seem to be failing too.

By trying to make seafarers better able to cope with the problems at sea, we are seemingly ignoring the need and possibilities of change. It seems clear – we need to train seafarers better, to educate them. To make the job better, happier, more productive. To have an absolutely zero tolerance of those who bully or threaten violence. We need to sweep the old ways of doing things out, and make ships a caring, friendly, enjoyable and fun place to be.

WHAT NOW?

It seems unclear what will actually change in the near term – there are of course many charities working hard to support seafarers. While the Mission to Seafarers “Happiness Index” is a vital tool in attempting to at least have some metrics and measurements.

Sadly though, it seems a case of too many people, companies, and organisations simply being able to look away and ignore their role in making things better. We all have to do more, to think differently and to ensure that we constantly press those with power to facilitate change to do so.

Fear of reprisal, blacklisting or losing jobs is clearly a massive barrier to really knowing how seafarers feel. So somehow there has to be some means or method of anonymous or confidential reporting. Though sadly, it is not always clear who such a report should go to.

The Unions do a sterling job, but there are natural fears that seafarers could rattle a hornets nest if they follow that route. While there is perhaps a sense occasionally that the welfare charities are a vital shoulder to lean on, but that they do not have any mechanism to make improvements. Someone, somewhere, somehow needs to make the change that is needed.

DO NOT FEEL ALONE

You’re not alone!

For any seafarers reading this, especially those who may be feeling depressed or even suicidal. The message is clear, you are not alone and many do care. However, you need to get help – to talk, to get the support you need. Do not suffer alone or in silence. This pain can pass and getting help will make the healing faster.

If you’re feeling like you want to die, it’s important to tell someone. Help and support is available right now if you need it. You don’t have to struggle with difficult feelings alone.

Phone a helpline, email or WhatsApp – SeafarersHelp is there for you, wherever you are…so you just need to reach out to them, and they will do all they can to help. It can be hard if you are feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, but please do not suffer alone. Direct dial 44 20 7323 2737 or email help@seafarerhelp.org

They also have lots of guidance and advice, so check out their website https://www.seafarerhelp.org/en/help/feeling-low

It is so important to talk to someone you trust. If you can, let family or friends know what’s going on for you. Do not hide your feelings or suppress what you are going through. They may be able to offer support and help keep you safe. There’s no right or wrong way to talk about suicidal feelings – starting the conversation is what’s important.