SCI roundtable focuses on mental health of mariners

The following is text of a news release from the Seamen's Church Institute (SCI):

(NEWARK, N.J.) — The Seamen’s Church Institute recently held a seafarer mental health roundtable at the International Seafarers’ Center in Port Newark, NJ. In attendance were representatives from flag states, shipowners, P&I clubs, the medical profession, academia, and seafarer welfare agencies.

The day began with a discussion of seafarers’ medical certificates, and the mental health factors that must be considered when issuing them, including which diagnoses, therapies and medications are deemed to be disqualifying. The distinction between “fitness for certification” and “fitness for duty” was considered, including the question of when different roles in a ship’s hierarchy demand different levels of medical fitness.

The topic of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) caused by piracy incidents was discussed; it was pointed out that PTSD is not diagnosable until at least six months after the traumatic incident. After such an event, almost everyone affected will display immediate, short-term reactions, but these aren’t necessarily predictive of ongoing mental health problems. The stigma facing piracy survivors was discussed; an increased awareness of the effects of trauma in society more generally often has the counterproductive result of prejudicing fellow crewmembers against survivors of such an attack. The point was made that the economic impact of mental health problems going untreated can be much greater than identifying and treating it as it occurs.

Turning to the topic of mental health problems among seafarers, the exacerbating factors of life at sea were discussed. These include the isolation seafarers often experience, and the separation from common support networks (friends and family), as well as work-related stress issues, relationship issues, problems adapting to ship life, and the blessing and curse of an increase in communication capabilities.

It was observed that, according to at least one company’s data, many self-destructive threats and acts happen during a seafarer’s first contract, when they are relatively young (19-27 years). This may be because of the “healthy worker effect”: Those who are robust enough for a life at sea are the ones who continue past the first few years and continue their career as seafarers.

Various strategies were discussed regarding mitigating the risk of suicide among seafarers, with training and awareness being viewed as key to this. SCI’s representatives gave an overview of the ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) workshops offered by the institute. The possibility of using e-learning tools to raise awareness of risks and intervention strategies was also raised: SCI has a 40-minute e-learning module on suicide awareness that is tailored to the inland river industry. Plans are underway to adapt it to the international fleet.

The discussion moved to the challenges of gleaning accurate statistics on deaths by suicide in the maritime context. There is also the problem of differentiating between accidental death and death by suicide in some cases. Added to this is the fact that bluewater suicides offer a “skewed sample” when they happen off-vessel. Once at home, when seafarers are off-contract, any deaths that occur are under the radar for companies.

The idea of providing a form for mental health evaluations that shipowners could use was suggested; some companies already have this provision. The feeling is that being on the front end of an investment in health and wellness pays dividends by reducing claims for companies and maximizing productivity.  

To read the official report on the topics covered, click here.

By Professional Mariner Staff