Mental health concerns among sailors must be addressed, conference hears

Experts in Dubai call on companies to take action as one in four seafarers battle depression

Shipping companies are neglecting the mental health of seafarers working in a high-risk occupation with a rising suicide rate, experts warned on Tuesday.

Campaigners said months spent at sea combined with being cut-off from loved ones could have a worrying impact on the mental stability of sailors.

The UK Protection and Indemnity Club, an insurer for ship-owners, said suicide rates among seafarers suffering from poor mental health had more than tripled since 2014.

Addressing a welfare conference in Dubai, Eugene Mayne, chief executive of regional transport giant Tristar Group, said one in four sailors struggled with depression.

“Nearly half of these seafarers said they had not asked anybody for help,” he said.

"Last year I was aware of four young cadets who jumped overboard because they could not handle the break up of a relationship."

“Industry leaders need to collectively pay attention to this growing trend and come together to do something about it.”

Shipping managers pointed the finger at the increasing availability of Wi-Fi on board, linking it with a rise in depression and suicide.

While connecting loved ones thousands of kilometres away, campaigners believe it could also increase feelings of isolation and desperation when things go wrong.

Experts said a life far removed from social media and the internet was the best method to encourage wellness on board vessels.

"We have identified two issues that [have an impact] on the welfare of sailors – the use of social media and the management of finances," said Rev Andy Bowerman, regional director for Mission to Seafarers, a global charity operating in 200 ports around the world to support workers at sea.

This year, the charity helped repatriate more than 60 sailors abandoned by their employers who went bankrupt.

Rev Bowerman said he was currently looking into the case of at least 65 others in need of help, trapped in vessels off the UAE coast.

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“We have intervened in cases where seafarers have attempted to harm themselves at sea after seeing a social media post from a loved one on Facebook or WhatsApp that they have misinterpreted,” he said.

Although careers in the maritime industry have been described as a high-risk occupations, exact figures on suicide are difficult to collate.

Data from Liberian-flagged vessels in 2018 showed suicide claimed five out of 43 lives lost on board ships.

Factors cited in a study of UK merchant shipping between 1919-2015 found several factors associated with suicide.

Mental health conditions (25 per cent), depression (18 per cent) and relationship problems (13 per cent) were the most common.

Of reported cases, 17 per cent were drinking heavily before the suicide.

"Mental health awareness is increasing but sailors do not always know how to access help," Dr Deepti Mankad, regional co-ordinator for the Sailor's Society wellness at sea program and founder of Mindspeak.

“I recently spoke with a seafarer who was on anti-anxiety medication but had not declared it to his master on board.

“Sailors are concerned about not being employed if they declare they have had treatment for an issue.

“This encourages seafarers to keep quiet about their anxiety or depression.

“Companies have a responsibility to ease these concerns to encourage people to talk about their mental health.”

A recent study of more than 1,000 seafarers by Sailors’ Society and Yale University found that 26 per cent showed signs of depression, but few were willing to seek help.

Dr Mankad said the aviation industry was a good example of how the welfare of staff under pressure was a high priority, but admitted this was rarely enforced in shipping.

“Families and loved ones do not always understand the risk these sailors are taking with their mental health and post things to social media that can be very small, but easily misunderstood,” said Dr Mankad.

“Last year, I was aware of four young cadets who jumped overboard because they could not handle the break-up of a relationship.”

The International Seafarers' Wellness and Assistance Network runs a helpline called SeafarerHelp providing emotional support to seafarers worldwide.