As part of our Seafarers Issues series we have looked into issues of mental health and welfare. Perhaps one areas we haven’t yet explored is the dreadful effect that loneliness at sea can have. We look at how it affects seafarers and hand you 6 tips on how to beat loneliness, overcome pain of separation and to avoid social isolation.
Loneliness is bad – we all know it, it can send you crazy for sure, but a US study has revealed that loneliness can also be bad for the wellbeing of the body as well as the mind. In fact researchers at the University of Chicago have claimed that loneliness can be as harmful to one’s health as cigarette smoking and obesity.
Besides making people depressed and increasingly suicidal, social isolation also hikes blood pressure and stress levels, general wear and tear, as well as the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD). All these negative and lonely people don’t even have anyone to talk too.
Researchers said: “Loneliness not only alters behaviour, but loneliness is related to greater resistance to blood flow through your cardiovascular system. Loneliness leads to higher rises in morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol, affects the immune system, higher blood pressure and depression.
Since loneliness diminishes a person’s will power and perseverance, and the person loses the ability to follow a healthy lifestyle. The health-wise difference between a lonely person and non-lonely person is akin to a smoker and a non-smoker. The findings stunned the team, and showed just how powerful and damaging loneliness can really be.
The very concept that loneliness kills should be of great concern to shipping. Increasingly we are sending ever smaller crews out to sea (numbers, not height of course), and the not unsurprising effect is one of isolation and loneliness.
A range of maritime charities, such as the Sailors Society and Mission to Seafarers have touched on the issues of stress, loneliness and the lack of social connection experienced by those at sea today. They are concerned, and rightly so.
The harsh and painful realities of being away from families and communities for months at a time naturally lead to loneliness, and there is a great personal cost that many seafarers never truly come to terms with. In his report entitled ‘Port Based Welfare Services for Seafarers’, (Pub SIRC, Cardiff, 2007), Erol Kahveci recorded conversations with seafarers and many described their lives as ‘being in prison’, isolated’, ‘lonely’.
It’s enough to turn you to smoking, over eating and drinking…heck you may as well, if they don’t see you off the creeping, numbing desolation and solitude sure will.
For most people loneliness is something which happens – but for seafarers it is an occupational hazard. Life at sea means being far from home (check out how to keep your long-distance relationship) , and so loneliness has to be conquered, somehow. This is not a Billy No Mates phase, this is a professional barrier that needs to be overcome.
Tackling the issue comes down to a couple of issues and the most important is whether the ship is connected or not. Ships with internet access really do make the difference. To remain in touch, to feel linked and attached to home and friends – that is key.
For non-connected ships, seafarers are trapped in a world of the past. Short, desperate phone calls, traipsing to find call boxes, or even having to write letters! For younger seafarers the feelings of disconnect are likely to be even more heightened.
The seafarers of tomorrow, and even some of today have never known a world without the internet. Their relationships have been online and on tap – whenever they need to connect, they reach out and click. Without this outlet, well we could be seeing problems of loneliness increase – supposing the industry can even get such people to sea in the first place.
According to experts on loneliness – and by that we mean therapists, not people without any friends. There are some obvious steps to ease the effects and risks of loneliness, but these are usually focused on people ashore – there is very little guidance for seafarers who are forced to be away from family and friends.
Advice such as don’t sleep too much or make sure you stay connected feels pretty galling to people at sea – but there are things which can be done to ease pain. These include:
1) Make Shipmates real mates: Other people onboard may be few and far between, they may be tackling their own issues. They may be tired, stressed and overworked – but these are your weapons to beat loneliness. Try and make friends with them – get a shared sense of purpose of connection and some jollity, somehow.
2) Keep yourself busy: You are a professional so make sure you are at the top of your game. Throw your isolation into positives – master that star sight, understand marine insurance, get learning new skills from other departments. Engineers who know chartwork, and deckies who know what happens when buttons are pressed tend to do well in life.
3) Dive into games, music, books or movies: A thousand books on your Kindle, 50k songs on your phone, all the latest movies from KVH – you have the tools to beat loneliness. Set targets – you’ve always wanted to read Shakespeare, or the entire Harry Potter…so do it, learn from it. Heck even become a reviewer. Write your thoughts down, and if possible share them. Start a book or movie club onboard. Beat each other’s high scores on Call of Duty. Be the hub of your onboard activities – throwing yourself into the happiness of others may just help you.
4) Exercise: Make yourself a challenge when you join the ship – be able to lose the weight you want, bench press 250 or run 10k on the running machine. Even though the loneliness may remain, the positive changes to your body and the buzz from this may just make you feel better.
5) Avoid focusing on loneliness: You are away from home, you will be away from home for a while. It is painful and sad, but it isn’t going to get better by moping or focusing on it. Don’t pretend you can forget the place or people you would rather be with, but focus back onto the positive steps outlined above.
6) Learn to cope: Somehow you need to turn that frown upside down. The calendar will change, the clock will move forward – it may be slower than you would like, but you will be back home. If you cannot make the best of the bad situation then it will hurt more, and you’ll gain nothing but misery. Somehow you need to learn to cope – be mighty as a wise person once told us.
It isn’t easy – we know, but there are ways of coping and there are ways of making loneliness worse. Focus on positives – Get buffed and clever…and then you really will have a homecoming to look forward too.