As a dedicated crew member for more than 15 years, Emma Ross has been through her fair share of ups and downs during her time on board. Long periods of time spent away from friends and family, minimal privacy, and add to that breakdowns, drug addiction, deaths and suicide, Emma has seen it all. That’s where Seas the Mind comes in.
Launched just last year by superyacht chef Emma and her business partner Melanie White, who also holds down a full-time job at the UK Chamber of Shipping, Seas the Mind provides Mental Health First Aid training both online and in person, with an aim to help crew to tackle, recognise and fortify their own and others’ mental health on board.
Ahead of World Mental Health Day on October 10, Emma gives us insight into the history that prompted her to launch her mental health platform, why it is such a prominent issue in the superyacht industry, and how she is aiming to get people talking more one training course at a time.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you first got into yachting?
I’m originally from Durban South Africa and the youngest of eight children - I come from a huge Modern Family style family! I studied in both the UK and South Africa, doing Psychology at University of Kwa Zulu Natal before I came onto yachts. My lifetime obsession with psychology and sociology began young and continues today.
You’ve been in the industry 15+ years – we imagine there must have been some pretty high highs and some pretty low lows?
So many extremes, from seeing dolphins in phosphorescence outside of Gib, racing yachts around Sardinia in the Swan Worlds and cold water glacier swims in Alaska…to pulling up a man overboard in a Tahitian storm, dealing with cocaine-addicted chief officers on watch, and a lot more in-between!
You took a year out to focus on yourself and get some therapy before heading back into the world of yachting – what caused you to leave and why did you decide to come back?
Simply, I was ill. There’s not much scope for sick and injured people on yachts due to the nature of our job, so to show any weakness, pain or vulnerability leads to job uncertainty. I simply got ill, hid my illness and almost lost my life because I refused to acknowledge it or seek treatment. Whether your illness is a physical or mental one, it has very real repercussions if you don’t seek out help and treatment. For me, that meant getting off the boat and getting into therapy. The same way I would have left the boat and received physiotherapy for a broken arm or strained ankle.
Why did you decide to launch Seas the Mind?
Because I love yachting, it has given me some of my best friends in life. It allowed me to buy my houses and travel the world. I think a lot of people who don’t know me may question my motives for teaching Mental Health First Aid, but yachting has been a wonderful career and has given me the opportunity to see parts of the world I couldn’t afford to see, or have the time if I had stayed in a more conventional job. I also know it’s not perfect and there is always room for improvement. I want to leave yachting better than I found it for the next generation, and that’s what I believe I’m doing with Seas the Mind.
What do your Mental Health First Aid Training Courses entail?
We train seafarers to become Mental Health First Aiders, which we feel is as important as STCW certifications. Mental Health First Aid is a practical resource for crew to tackle, recognise and fortify their own and others’ mental health on board. Our two-day course is delivered across four time-sensitive manageable sessions. Learning takes place through a mix of presentations, group discussions, and workshop activities. Each session is built around a Mental Health First Aid action plan.
You run the courses alongside your business partner Melanie White, who works full time for the UK Chamber of Shipping, all whilst working on rotation as a chef on a 62m superyacht – how do you manage your time to ensure as many crew as possible have access to training?
It can be challenging…a lot of early morning starts, especially when I’m on a Pacific Standard time and 8-9 hours behind Europe and the UK! But when you love something and believe in something, it’s a little bit easier to hit the ‘stop’ button on your 5.55am alarm and get up and get going. I also have amazing friends and crew on my boat that encourage me every day, so I’m doing it for myself and for them.
Your courses take place on board superyachts – is this worldwide?
They are, we are the only training provider allowed to give International onboard training. Something we are very proud of and happy that MHFA England believed in us enough to grant this special dispensation.
How many crew have you trained so far?
We only launched a year ago but have already trained crew from several large yachts and staff from both Bluewater, She of the Sea and Burgess, who have been supportive of this unitive from its inception.
What do you think are currently some of the biggest barriers for crew when it comes to speaking out about their mental health issues?
Stigma, misunderstanding and fear of losing their job. Pretty real fears for anyone, especially for yachties.
What do you think needs to change for these barriers to come down?
More conversations, more normalisation of illness in yachting, groundswell of support from crew and captains, management company and insurance companies. All of whom benefit, emotionally, psychologically and even financially from better training of crew, top down.
Do you think there are currently enough portals that crew can reach out to when suffering with their mental health and do crew actually use these?
I'm not sure. I think we have more than ever, but how big their presence is in yachting is debatable. I hope crew do, because even if we save one life from suicide, a preventable cause of death, I would say it is worth it.
Do you think mental health problems are more common across certain departments or sexes, or is it a crew-wide issue?
No, it affects anyone, regardless of age, sex or position. Depression does not discriminate. Suicide does not discriminate. Anxiety does not discriminate. An industry that takes us away from our families for many months, isolates us even pre Covid, can be a fertile ground for anyone experiencing mental health illness.
What is your short term goal for Seas the Mind?
To get as many crew MHFA trained and beginning to help themselves and others on board.
And your long term goal?
To get mandated change, whereby every crew member has to do the MHFA 1/2 Awareness course as part of their STCW, and every HOD has to complete the MHFA 2 Day course when they become in a position of responsibility and have a duty of care over their crew members.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given throughout the course of your career?
Don’t be a yachtie if you like to be in control. Be ok with change rather than rallying against it.
What would you say to a crew member who is struggling with mental health issues right now, but is afraid to come forward for help?
Talk! Talk to your crew, friends at home or a family member. Talk to anyone who you love and who loves you back. Talk to anyone who has been brave enough to talk about their mental health issues. Don’t stay silent. Help is available, you won’t always feel like this, talk and stay one more day.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Hike, read, travel, watch live music and comedy when I can. See friends and family and have them all in my home so I can cook for them.
Tell us a lesser known fact about yourself that would surprise your colleagues.
I have skydived on every continent I’ve been to!