Merchant sailors recognised as frontline workers will aid mental health

Shipping industry must reduce stigma of psychological problems in workers at sea, conference hears

Reverend Andy Bowerman, right, has helped scores of seafarers who have been abandoned by their employers during the Covid-19 pandemic. His role at the Mission to Seafarers involves ensuring medical help, food supplies and fuel is available to forgotten merchant sailors. The National
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A declaration marking merchant sailors as key workers during the pandemic is a major step towards safeguarding their mental health at sea, shipping experts said.

Signed by more than 750 organisations in February, the Neptune Declaration prioritised seafarers in the same way as health workers, putting them at the front of the queue for Covid-19 vaccinations.

But with many crews unable to come into ports due to travel restrictions, isolated sailors remain unprotected against the coronavirus.

Getting shore leave is almost impossible now so seafarers are constantly on the move

Neptune outlined the main actions needed to resolve the crew change crisis, which is not only putting seafarers in a desperate situation but also threatening the safety of shipping and world trade.

“Over the past six years we have become increasingly concerned with the social isolation of seafarers and its impact on mental health,” said Roger Harris, executive director of the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN).

“The industry has come together during the pandemic under the Neptune Declaration and that is positive.”

Staged on World Health Day on April 7, the Maritime Standard virtual conference discussed how mental health issues were becoming a familiar curse on the shipping industry.

Since the start of the pandemic, ISWAN said it had seen an increase in demand for its crisis helplines, as well as online counselling and mental health training.

Members of the Royal Navy carry medical supplies on board the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean at the Naval Base in Gibraltar on September 11, 2017, before leaving to provide humanitarian assistance and vital aid to British Overseas Territories and Commonwealth partners affected by Hurricane Irma. - Britain has pledged £32 million (35 million euros, $42 million) in aid and sent hundreds of troops, supplies and rescue equipment on several flights to the British territories in the Caribbean since September 8, 2017. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)
Members of the British Royal Navy carry medical supplies to a ship in Gibraltar as part of the UK’s foreign assistance programme. AFP

Reducing numbers on giant tankers in recent years to cut costs has placed crews under even greater strain.

“Seafarers live hidden lives, with ports often cut off from the general population, so we need to get out to the world that these workers play a key role in all our lives,” said Mr Harris.

The Abu Dhabi Maritime Academy, the training and development hub of Abu Dhabi Ports and Abu Dhabi University (ADU), agreed a bilateral co-operation to improve training for cadets destined for a life at sea.

Courses aim to prepare recruits for the mental health challenges of months at sea, often cut off from family and friends.

Training is also being offered to captains to recognise early warning signs of mental stress.

In January, Bhupendra Shri, 23, died on board the MT Sea Princess near Khor Fakkan in the UAE, days before it was due to make port in India.

The death was treated as a suspected suicide.

While the number of reported seafarer deaths dropped from 165 in 2015 to 55 in 2016, it rose to 112 in 2019.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, shipping industry analysts estimated 400,000 seafarers worked on merchant cargo ships –300,000 on passenger and cruise ships, and approximately 200,000 on other types of vessels. Just two per cent of those at sea were women.

Between 2015 and 2019, 527 seafarers were killed at work and a further 509 declared missing.

K347D7 Crew 1 who have spent the last seven and a half months operating the HMS Penzance returns to HM Naval Base Clyde after three years on deployment in the Gulf.
K347D7 Crew 1 returns to HM Naval Base Clyde after three years on deployment in the Gulf.

Chris Peters, Tristar Group's maritime logistics chief executive in Dubai, said the industry was finally addressing the issue of suicides at sea.

“We had seen an increase in seafarer suicides before the pandemic,” he said.

“Because of the internet, seafarers can access social media but that can generate more stress while they are away.

“Crew need training to spot if a colleague has a problem with stress.

“They can’t talk to their wives so need to feel comfortable to engage with their onboard colleagues.”

Dr Fahad Alobaid, a medical advisor at the Kuwait Oil Tanker Company, said one in six workers at sea is thought to suffer some kind of mental illness.

“We have acknowledged there is a mental health issue with seafarers. It is one of the toughest jobs and is a problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.

“They must speak up when they have a problem.”

In a bid to stave off boredom and encourage an open community,  many shipping companies have introduced games, quizzes and TV groups.

Meanwhile, the Mission to Seafarers charity in Dubai has implemented several support initiatives.

The ‘We Care’ programme prepares seafarers and their families for life at sea, while chaplains offer support to offshore workers.

The charity’s quarterly happiness index, a survey of sailors it supports, has revealed an increase in perceived pressure and a sense of isolation since the start of the outbreak.

Periods of lockdown, however, have resulted in a wider understanding of their challenges, according to Reverend Andy Bowerman, the mission’s regional director.

“Getting shore leave is almost impossible now, so seafarers are constantly on the move,” he said.

“Time in port is decreasing, so they are being squeezed more and the pandemic has highlighted that.

“Companies should have a culture that does not stigmatise mental health as we are at a tipping point for the industry."

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