As the world tries to recover from the effects of the recent pandemic, other key challenges to seafarers’ mental health are coming to light, particularly abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination.
On World Mental Health Day, the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) has shared insights into the mental health challenges seafarers are reporting to its helplines.
Data from ISWAN’s renowned helpline service, SeafarerHelp (available for free, 24/7, to seafarers around the world), shows the significant impact that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting crew change crisis had on seafarers’ psychological wellbeing. Among those who contacted SeafarerHelp with mental health issues at the height of the pandemic in 2020, being stranded on board for long periods was a key factor for 39 per cent of seafarers, while 14 per cent said they were suffering from fatigue.
While the proportion of calls and messages to SeafarerHelp linking mental health with repatriation and fatigue has declined since 2020, another mental health challenge has emerged as a significant problem. To date in 2022, 15 per cent of all seafarers contacting SeafarerHelp with mental health issues reported experiences of abuse, bullying, harassment or discrimination (up from 8 per cent in 2021).
SeafarerHelp has received multiple calls from junior crew being bullied, threatened and/or verbally abused by their superiors. Some seafarers have reported being the victim of serious physical assaults. Such abuse has a profound impact on an individual’s mental health, which is exacerbated for seafarers spending long periods on board – seafarers talk about feeling depressed, hopeless, lacking in confidence, living in fear, negative impacts on their physical health, and even feeling suicidal.
Data from ISWAN’s helpline for those working in the superyacht industry, Yacht Crew Help, tells a similar story. Although the number of calls and messages to this helpline are much lower than SeafarerHelp because of different crewing levels, abuse, bullying, harassment and/or discrimination are collectively the issues which most commonly occur alongside mental health challenges for yacht crew. Crew members have sought support from Yacht Crew Help to cope with experiences of verbal abuse, bullying, sexual harassment and/or sexual assault at sea. In total, calls to Yacht Crew Help relating to abuse, bullying, harassment and/or discrimination more than doubled over the first three quarters of 2022, compared with the same period in 2021.
Simon Grainge, Chief Executive of ISWAN, said: “The pandemic brought the issue of seafarers’ mental health into sharp focus, and whilst the challenge of COVID-19 might be fading in our memories, the mental wellbeing of seafarers remains a concern. Seafarers are just as susceptible to the impacts of abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination as the rest of us, but they face the additional challenge of experiencing these in an environment which serves as both their workplace and their home, often for long periods of time.
“World Mental Health Day is a prime opportunity to recognise that the mental health of seafarers cannot be taken for granted. The maritime industry has a duty of care towards its workers, and their mental health is crucial to the future of the industry in terms of safety as well as having a major impact on recruitment and retention.”
ISWAN encourages maritime industry stakeholders to support and get involved with existing initiatives to tackle abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination in the maritime industry. The Center for Ocean Policy and Economics (COPE°) Working Group for Psychological Safety, Bullying and Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Maritime Sector, of which ISWAN is a member, aims to deliver constructive solutions to ensure a psychologically safe workplace culture for seafarers and support equality, equity, diversity and inclusiveness (EEDI) in the industry.
Awareness, education and policy around EEDI is a key area of focus for tackling issues like abuse and discrimination. Initiatives like Maritime UK’s Diversity in Maritime programme aim to promote a fair, equal and inclusive maritime industry that embraces diversity and creates a supportive and open atmosphere for all to be able to achieve their potential.
Seafarers needing support or a listening ear for any problems or concerns can contact ISWAN’s free, confidential helplines SeafarerHelp or Yacht Crew Help at any time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Seafarers can also share their stories and find support through SeaCode, an anonymous platform developing alongside the COPE° Working Group for victims and survivors of abuse, bullying, harassment and discrimination in the maritime industry.