Mental Health Awareness Week 2023: Taking a Closer Look at Anxiety on Board
The sources and causes of anxiety among superyacht crew can be as varied and plentiful as the souls on board ships and yachts, and how could they be anything but? There is so much we are exposed to in a modern yachting world, so many serious and unpredictable risks we face, and infinite ways we can feel a threat to our peace of mind. The sources of stress in our industry can be particularly anxiety inducing because of the extreme environments we find ourselves in, body size and lifestyles we’ve been told by social media to seek out. That’s without even starting to think about the UHNW families we work for and their multi-million-dollar accessories we have a duty of care for - superyachts.
We can be peacefully going about our day or sleeping at night when it can feel like we are being assaulted by a deluge of intrusive anxious thoughts. “What does this crew member think of me? Can I do this job? Does the chef remember what I said to them last night whilst out? Does X know I fancy him/her? How am I going to get through this Med season sharing a cabin with ….?”
These can all feel like incredibly serious issues that need immediate addressing, and in many ways you are right. But it is also good to assess what our relationship is with stress and anxiety. Is stress a bad thing? Can it ever be a good thing? Most people experience stress and anxiety at some time - it is a natural and normal response to an external stimulation or perceived threat and can be very useful in helping us to avoid dangerous situations and motivating us to navigate and solve everyday problems and situations. That job interview you need to ace? The Hinge date you want to impress? The galley service you just need to power through? Eustress, otherwise known as the good kind of stress, helps us through it all. It is when it becomes distress, which is longer term, outside our coping mechanisms, or leaves us feeling exhausted and less productive that it starts to negatively impact our daily lives. This can result in physical and mental health problems that we need to be aware of and be proactive in taking action, especially for HODs and leaders on board that have a duty of care to their crew.
The latest crew surveys have thrown up the following results:
Long periods away from home, high-pressure situations, accidents on board and a lack of awareness and stigma all contribute to high levels of poor mental health amongst those working in our industry.
It was widely felt that COVID-19 has contributed to further strain among seafarers.
Mental health issues were described as poorly understood, both among seafarers and across the industry more widely, leading crew to not wanting to disclose their mental health issues prior to boarding the vessel. One June 2022 study on Understanding Seafarer Suicide and Under Reporting disclosed: “Lots of senior people in the maritime world will turn around and say, 'We're not mental health practitioners. We didn't sign up to go to sea to look after people's mental health. They need to man up, they need to just get on with it.”
This insidious and pervasive view has led to a poor understanding of mental health issues. Another recent mental health survey completed by 1,019 crew members across all onboard departments, ages, length of service in the sector and nationality in 2021 asked crew what mental health issues they had experienced on board, with stress and then anxiety topping the list with a reported 69 per cent and 57 per cent respectively.
The top three contributors to poor or deteriorating mental health were:
Crew tension/politics (59%)
Poor sleep (47%)
By addressing this topic and that of overall psychological safety, “the maritime industry would be communicating to current and future seafarers the need for education through training, proactivity calling for greater established standards, thus increasing confidence and job satisfaction in the industry,” it said in the study (The State of the Superyacht Sector by Quay Crew and in Association with Mental Health Support Solutions).
With only 11 per cent of crew having ever received mental health training since working in yachting, but a whopping 85 per cent of crew responding ‘yes’ to the question: “Did you find it/would it be useful?”, it seems we not only need it, but actively want mental health training to be a part of our yachting world and career paths.
The aims of SEAS THE MIND's Mental Health First Aid training (MHFA) are to preserve life where a person may be at risk; provide help to prevent poor mental health from becoming more serious; promote recovery from poor mental health; and provide comfort to a person with poor mental health. Take out the word ‘mental’ from each of those statements and you’ll find the aims are closely related to the aims of physical first aid, and we all understand the importance of having resilient and robust health on board and training to help us in an emergency situation when we know no helicopters can get to us and no firemen are going to be repelling down our topsides to fight our fires. The same applies to mental health.
Mental health support for seafarers
SEAS THE MIND’s MHFA for Yachting educates you in the causes and sources of stress, when to know it is a natural and normal response and how to honour it and accept it as part of our manmade world or when to be concerned and take action for yourself or others through an action plan.
The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) is an international maritime charity which works to improve the lives of seafarers and their families with services. For professional yacht crew, we operate the free, 24-hour helpline Yacht Crew Help – the number one free, confidential, 24/7/365, multilingual helpline providing help and support to seafarers and their families around the world.
Anxiety UK is a UK based registered charity for those affected by anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression.
Betterhelp.com (online US based therapy) & MHSS Online Therapy for Stress & Anxiety.
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