Survey shows pandemic impacting mariners’ mental health

The Covid-19 pandemic caused unprecedented upheaval in the maritime industry. Thousands of American mariners were stranded on their vessels with no word when relief would arrive.

Making matters worse, supplies ran low in some cases, and seafarers were separated from family members who were home confronting a global emergency. This is on top of the worries about the effects of the pandemic on their health and well-being.

The University of Washington’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences conducted a survey to gauge how the pandemic was affecting mariners’ mental health. The results showed the virus has taken a toll. 

Of the 1,589 mariners who responded (87 percent of whom had sailed since the start of the pandemic), half showed signs of having at least one of five adverse mental health outcomes. About half of the respondents said their mental health declined since the pandemic started, and a quarter said their sleep worsened.

“For a job that requires mental fitness, it can be concerning to see the double-digit prevalence,” said Marissa Baker, the study’s author.

Mariners in general were optimistic in their self-assessments. Roughly 75 percent rated their mental health as good, very good or excellent, and only 5 percent described it as poor. But their answers to specific questions tell a more troubling story. Among the respondents, 38 percent had scores indicating elevated stress, 22 percent had scores indicating a likelihood of generalized anxiety disorder and 20 percent had scores indicating depression. More than 18 percent of scores suggested post-traumatic stress disorder, and about 9 percent reported having thoughts of suicide. 

The survey, published in November, was commissioned by the U.S. Maritime Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard through their Covid-19 Working Group. It was conducted from Jan. 25 through July 31, 2021. 

Jeremy Hope, vice president of Gulf ports and government contracts for the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, said the results do not surprise him. “We had a lot of people stuck on ships and unable to leave,” he said. “That’s industrywide. The job has clearly changed quite a bit.” 

Hope said anticipation of shore leave got a lot of people through long stretches at work before the pandemic started. “They knew they had a break coming up. When that’s suddenly taken from you, I see how frustration sets in.”  

Researchers are still trying to measure how the pandemic is impacting the mental health of workers in other professions. That makes it hard to compare these findings to other groups of workers, the study acknowledges. But mariners’ mental health outcomes were worse than those of the general population prior to the pandemic, and their rates of depression and anxiety were comparable to studies of healthcare workers and other essential workers during the pandemic.

Female and younger mariners were more likely to report negative mental health outcomes. Women on average scored 48 percent higher in assessment of stress than men, and mariners aged 18 to 34 scored 45 percent higher than average in stress.   

Baker said those numbers should be concerning for the industry. “If you want to grow the profession or keep people in the profession, these are the groups you want to maintain,” she said. 

Other groups that had significantly worse outcomes were mariners on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Military Sealift Command vessels, those working in the oil industry and on the Great Lakes. 

Mariners face difficulties in getting mental health treatment. Most work aboard vessels for weeks at a time, often with limited internet and phone service, making telehealth visits impossible. In the survey, 67 percent said they would not be able to easily continue or start mental health care while on a vessel. Fifty-five percent of those people said lack of phone or internet aboard was a primary hurdle. Other barriers include a lack of privacy on board and fear of losing Coast Guard credentials. To ease such concerns, the Coast Guard issued a bulletin in May 2021 “to assure mariners that seeking mental health care will not jeopardize a mariner’s medical certification.”

The survey also asked about restrictions related to Covid-19. Fifty percent of respondents reported being denied shore leave when in port because of the pandemic, and 35 percent reported being unable to reunite with family. Twenty-five percent said they were unable to join a vessel’s crew because of interruption to normal crew rotations.

On a more upbeat note, most mariners said they have enough time to rest and recharge on a vessel (62 percent) or have someone to talk with onboard if they are feeling sad or stressed (52 percent). The findings also suggest, overall, that mariners like their jobs. 

“They like the people they work with and like the superior officers and managers they work for,” Baker said. 

But for a population that works within schedules and protocols, Covid-19 has injected unwelcome uncertainty into an already difficult profession.  

“There is still concern about shore leave being cancelled,” Baker said, “and some angst about how long this is going to persist. Are things ever going to go back to normal?”