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29 Mar 2024
9 mins
Confronting Mental Health

Candour and compassion enable two seafarers to take the bull by the horns, to address mental health among seafarers.

SeaVoices spoke with 3rd Officer Nafiz Khairul Anwar and Capt. Hari Subramaniam about this.

Nafiz shares...

SMOU General Council member Nafiz, 27, is an outspoken advocate for mental health among seafarers. The Tripartite Nautical Training Award (TNTA) graduate regularly posts his thoughts on issues that have mental health implications on seafarers on LinkedIn.

Issues that could have mental health implications on seafarers

Loneliness at sea

Going to sea entails being apart from loved ones and family. Initially, this distance may not appear significant, but with prolonged absences, the harsh reality becomes apparent. During brief reunions, he witnessed the ageing of his loved ones, realising how much had transpired in his absence.

Nafiz also mentioned the accounts of seafarers who began to engage in self-harm, such as cutting, as a way to cope with feelings of emptiness and numbness.

“Often, they experience a deep sense of emptiness and sought solace in feeling anything at all. Having navigated my own set of challenges, I opened up to them about my experiences, hoping to offer understanding. Gradually, they confided in me about their profound sense of loneliness. The isolation onboard and our inability to influence events at home contribute to a profound feeling of helplessness.”

Loneliness at sea is real. Furthermore, working with international crew has its drawbacks as there are cultural differences and language barriers to bridge. It was difficult to adjust at first, but along the way, we usually picked up a few tips on how to overcome these challenges.

Workplace harassment

Harassment and bullying can be a major concern onboard. Nafiz shared a troubling incident involving a superior that had such a profound impact on him that he contemplated leaving the seafaring profession entirely. It took him six months before he felt ready to return to duty onboard. During conversations with colleagues, he learned that he was not the only one who had experienced such challenges, leading him to realise that his unpleasant encounter was not specifically targeted at him. It was from this experience that Nafiz came to the realisation that engaging in sharing and open dialogue can be beneficial in dealing with challenges.

“Eventually, everything worked out because I knew where the lines were, where to seek help and who to call,” he said.

What the industry, employers and union can do to mitigate mental health issues

In addition to ensuring reliable internet access, Nafiz’s company recognized the toll that extended contracts can take on a seafarer’s mental well-being. Consequently, they have shortened the duration of contracts for both officers and crew. Despite the significant increase in operating expenses, this change has been greatly appreciated by Nafiz’s colleagues. Nafiz believes this is a commendable example which can be undertaken by the industry.

Nafiz aims to bridge the disparity in experience between those working onshore and at sea, particularly in terms of connectivity. He advocates for ensuring that services available onshore, as much as possible, are also accessible at sea. To him, if the industry commits to this goal, transitioning between sea and shore will become smoother, making the industry more appealing.

He values SMOU’s initiatives in organising discussions on mental health and facilitating gatherings for seafarers, as it effectively encourages open conversations about their concerns, fosters confidence, and facilitates networking.

Advice to seafarers facing mental health issues

His advice to seafarers in facing challenges would be to “Evaluate and get to the root of what’s causing the problem. Seek for solutions professionally, or reach out and talk to friends or loved ones.”

Engaging in conversation and sharing experiences may appear uncomplicated, yet it proves beneficial. Apart from conversing with his fellow seafarers, Nafiz communicates with his fiancée, who is also a seafarer. Although work-related discussions are infrequent, they find solace in sharing their challenges, providing a means to alleviate stress. Nafiz emphasised the significance of sufficient rest for rejuvenation.

“Though I would confidently say that seafarers are amongst the toughest of people, if you are in need of help, please reach out!”

Capt. Hari shares...

Capt. Hari Subramaniam, Regional Head, Business Relations of Shipowners’ Club, oversees the Club’s MEDISEA (Medical Enhancement Scheme for Seafarers) Scheme which offers comprehensive health and well-being initiatives for seafarers and their families.

He is right in the thick of action when it comes to seafarers’ and their families’ welfare.

Issues that could have mental health implications on seafarers

Tough life

“In the 70s or 80s, seafaring was a noble and sought-after profession. Today, it doesn’t make it to the list of professions in demand. Mariners have tough lives. They are exposed to perils at sea and spend extended time away from their loved ones,” he said.

How seafarers are treated

“In the maritime industry, sadly, the Master and the seafarers in general often are left to take the blame for things that have gone wrong, even if these are not within their control.  They are made scapegoats in an environment where systems and legal practices are unfairly stacked against them.”

Capt. Hari expressed his concern when he sees seafarers being made “whipping boys just because shore managements don’t take adequate responsibility”. Then, there is the total alcohol ban (zero alcohol policy) on most ships in reaction to isolated incidents. This blanket ruling is enforced with little or no engagement with seafarers to express what they thought or felt. This is a stark example of how the industry thinks they have the right to decide on behalf of the seafarers.

Smaller crew, heavier workload

“There used to be 30 or 40 people on board a 40,000 DWT tanker. There were more hands to share the load. There was more rest and more camaraderie on board amongst the seafarers. Pool parties, barbecues, sporting activities on deck etc was all part of the action during long sailing voyages.

Now, we barely have about 12 to 14 people. With fewer seafarers manning vessels nowadays, the demands placed on them appear lopsided and in many ways unfair. Workload has increased so much over the years, negatively impacting stress levels,” he pointed out.

Stigma

“It’s difficult for seafarers to accept being honest about their mental health, because their general perception is that if they did come out, they would be labelled as weak and risk having a bad report. They could even lose their jobs or not be considered for promotions to management level.” This has got to change and the industry has to assure them by action; not talk, that “It’s ok to say I’m not ok!!”

No sea, no wage

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a significant increase in seafarer resignations (The Great Resignation). While considerable attention was directed towards those onboard and the hardships they faced, seafarers unable to sail were left grappling with the uncertainty surrounding their livelihoods. Concerns about providing for their families weighed heavily on their minds, leading many to explore alternative sources of income such as farming, delivery services, and hospitality. Whilst it may not pay as much, at least it pays around the year and doesn’t depend on others making decisions that affect their livelihood!

Internet connectivity

According to Capt. Hari, having access to internet can be a boon and a bane at the same time. The good part is it enables staff to stay in touch with family members, but sometimes, when there’s trouble at home, knowing too much can affect the staff concerned. So, families also need to be mindful that sharing information could cause anxiety, affecting focus and state of mind, which in turn could lead to accidents or injuries. With this awareness, they can be more circumspect when interacting with their loved ones onboard.

What the industry, employers and union can do to mitigate mental health issues

Care for family

“Provisions for families, including family events, accessible helplines, and readily available officers for assistance during family emergencies, provide seafarers with peace of mind while onboard, assuring them that their families are well-supported during their absence.”

Physical health and well-being

“Providing comprehensive health screenings for seafarers at no additional expense, rather than very basic biannual screenings, is advantageous for all parties involved.

The basic medical examinations give seafarers a false sense of security regarding their health when its scope doesn’t even involve blood sugar, cholesterol testing etc. With knowledge of any health risks and access to appropriate medication, seafarers experience reduced anxiety, eliminating concerns about managing illnesses without medication onboard. This, in turn, minimizes distractions that could impact mental well-being and potentially lead to accidents. Additionally, the company benefits from a better safety record, vibrant working environment thereby leading to fewer insurance claims and increased savings.”

Communication and events

“Consistent and trustworthy communication to reassure seafarers of their employers’ concern for their well-being and commitment to inclusivity is invaluable. These messages hold significant weight.

Arranging virtual events that involve seafarers onboard, in addition to their onshore counterparts, is another meaningful initiative.”

Can mental health problems be alleviated? Capt. Hari is very optimistic in this regard and believes that if our efforts are genuine and not general tick box exercises, it is certainly possible and offers an idea:

“By conducting a mapping exercise tracing the evolution of shipping from its origins to its current state, while considering the triggering factors and examining the resulting actions and reactions, as well as weighing the pros and cons (acknowledging that there are always two sides to every issue), we can identify potential measures or solutions to address mental health challenges.”

It is important to know what broke along the years in order to properly and effectively fix it

Seafarers can limit the risks of working at sea and keep fit, healthy and happy by taking care of their well-being.

Here are four infographics based on extracts from Psychological Wellbeing at Sea, showing how seafarers can boost their well-being and explaining the science behind it.