There has been growing recognition over the last few years that seafarers’ mental health needs to be considered much more than was previously the case in the operation of ships. Seafaring has always been a demanding career, and modern communications would improve the lives of those at sea. There is a sense that this must be true, but there is mounting evidence of hitherto unknown problems.
Once upon a time, a seafarer could be away for months and only communicate with loved ones ashore in port or over expensive and utterly non-private radiotelephone calls. Bad news would usually be received when the seafarer was in port and could have access to shore-based support or a flight home. With modern low-earth-orbit satellites and various social media platforms, the seafarer could receive bad news in real time and yet be unable to do much about it. In addition, the senior crew onboard might need to be made aware of a gathering storm in the mental health of a crew member who might be reluctant to discuss things. All this, coupled with the usual stresses of life at sea, could represent quite a threat to the safety of the ship and crew.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has a vital role in addressing mental health issues among seafarers. The next revision of the STCW presents an opportunity to strengthen existing regulations and introduce new measures to promote good mental health in the maritime industry.
The IMO has already taken steps to address this through its current regulations. For example, the IMO’s Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC, 2006) requires shipowners to provide seafarers with access to medical care, including mental health support. The introduction of Human Element Leadership and Management training in 2010 has also immensely helped raise awareness. But the HELM courses are primarily about managing crew in a safety-critical environment and creating a ‘culture of safety’ onboard. Crew mental health is important here, but there is insufficient time on these courses to give the subject the time it deserves. Also, HELM is not on the radar of new crew members.
The next revision of the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) will almost certainly address mental health issues among seafarers.
One potential solution could be to require mandatory training for seafarers and shipowners on mental health awareness and support. This could include training on identifying signs of mental distress in themselves and others and how to access mental health resources both on and off the ship.
The IMO could also consider establishing guidelines for shipowners to create a positive and supportive work environment that promotes good mental health. This could include recommendations for managing workload and rest periods, providing access to mental health resources, and fostering open communication and support between crew members.
Finally, the IMO could collaborate with other organisations and stakeholders to address mental health issues in the maritime industry. This could involve partnerships with mental health organisations, industry associations, and academic institutions to research and develop best practices for supporting seafarers’ mental health.
Two primary industry associations fully engage with these developing trends in the superyacht industry. MYBA The Worldwide Yachting Association and the Professional Yachting Association (PYA) actively support mental health awareness. They will be part of future discussions at flag-state and EU/IMO levels.
At Bluewater, we offer courses in ‘Mental First Aid’ by Emma Ross, a superyacht chef who set up “Seize the Mind”, explicitly targeted at our industry. The course is approved by the international charity “Kelly’s Cause“, a pioneer in this field. The feedback so far has been excellent, and I thoroughly recommend it.
John Wyborn - Director of Crew & Training