While Yale University’s recent Seafarer Mental Health Study paints a sobering picture of life at sea, it also should serve as a catalyst for improvements, industry officials say.
The study, commissioned by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust and released in October, was based on survey results that identified “dangerously high levels of mental stress among seafarers.”
The grimmest findings: In the two-week period before taking the survey, one quarter of respondents had suffered depression, 17 percent experienced anxiety, and one in five had contemplated suicide or self-harm on several or all of those days. The study also linked these conditions to a greater likelihood of injury and illness on board.
The lead researcher, Dr. Rafael Lefkowitz of the Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, said the results were based on responses from 1,572 seafarers from all ranks around the world, many of whom were interviewed at Port Newark (New Jersey) and then completed the survey.
The results confirmed long-held suspicions about the stresses and strains faced by mariners, said Katie Higginbottom, head of the ITF Seafarers’ Trust, which works on behalf of maritime workers. The most surprising finding and one that needs further exploration, she said, was the correlation with violence and threats of violence on board.
“I was recently speaking to a former seafarer who talked about putting on his ‘sea face,’” Higginbottom said. “I’m sure there can be great camaraderie, but equally with such small crews, any upsets and tensions have to be worked out in a very small space from which you can’t escape.”
She said the study confirmed that the overall problem is linked to company culture and failings in operational management. The study’s recommendations include providing better training for cadets, destigmatizing mental health within company cultures, and addressing the need for interventions to prevent workplace violence.
“Seafarers who have control over their work and feel properly trained for the task at hand are much less likely to be depressed and anxious,” Higginbottom said. “It is a particular problem for seafarers in the early stages of their career, so there is a clear challenge to industry to prepare new recruits for the life ahead and build in structures where support is available.”
The entire industry must find ways to talk openly about mental health, she said.
“Perhaps the clear link between depression/anxiety and accidents and injuries will make owners see that there is an economic interest in creating a supportive environment, as well as a moral imperative,” Higginbottom said.
Abdulgani Serang of the National Union of Seafarers of India, who is also a member of the ITF Executive Board, was the study’s chief instigator.
“The maritime fraternity should not allow the mental state of seafarers to come to such a level that seafarers are stressed out, fatigued, traumatized and even contemplating committing suicide in extreme cases,” he said, adding that seafarers need access to help in order to deal with stress.
Serang said his union started a 24-hour toll-free helpline that gives seafarers and their family members access to trained psychiatrists. He is glad the study puts the onus for improvements on employers and insurers, but he said governments also should be held accountable.
“It is the responsibility of the policymakers in these countries to (put) effective systems in place to help seafarers,” he said.
Lefkowitz said he hopes the study helps reduce stigma and creates far better work environments.
“It’s a matter of fixing the culture so that seafarers feel free to ask for help and have the resources,” he said. “A quarter of seafarers shouldn’t be walking around with this burden.”
Don Marcus, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), said the maritime industry must find ways to help seafarers feel less isolated, develop workplace cultures that emphasize safety and wellness, and find ways to cut down on fatigue, including increased staffing and access to shore leave.