UAE: The Maritime Standard focussed on the crucial and increasingly pressing issue of seafarer mental health at its latest Covid-19: A Leadership Perspective webinar held on April 7th. The event featured panellists from different sectors of the shipping business, as well as the faith, medical and training communities, who discussed the detrimental impact the consequences of the pandemic have had on seafarer mental health with well documented crew change issues in particular leading to longer stays onboard and increased incidents of loneliness, isolation, anxiety and depression.
This was a point made forcefully by Chris Peters, CEO, Eships, who said, “The biggest single issue affecting seafarer mental health is the inability to undertake crew changes in many places around the world. We need more support to enable us to perform crew changes in difficult locations. This is not just affecting the mental health of those onboard but also those ashore who want to get back to earning a living at sea but who are blocked from doing so at the moment.”
Ali Shehab, Director of Maritime Advisory Services, BSICO, described the problem in one word: “Helplessness.” He continued, “Seafarers feel that nobody is helping them, and they see their situation getting worse. There is no escape for them, and they are increasingly worried about their families and loved ones at home.”
Roger Harris, Executive Director, International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), highlighted the intense physiological stress on seafarers and noted that the organisation’s Seafarers Help helpline has at times over the past year being receiving up to three times the call volumes it normally would. He added, “It is not just the crew change problems, but financial worries as well that are adding to the stress levels experienced by seafarers.”
Dr. Fahad Al-Obaid, Medical Advisor, Kuwait Oil Tanker Company, observed that initially crew anxieties centred around problems directly related to the pandemic, including interactions in ports, and the supply of PPE and other safety equipment, but with the extended tours onboard there have been additional problems triggered by fatigue and exhaustion. “Safety is becoming a problem, with more accidents and near misses, and this is a direct result of the impact on seafarer mental wellbeing,” Dr Farhad added.
Dr. Yasser Al Wahedi, Director, Abu Dhabi Maritime Academy, highlighted some of the ways that new approaches to training were helping to engage crew onboard and give fresh perspectives on dealing with mental health issues. However, he said, “We are all missing that emotional connection that comes from face to face learning.”
While there was an acknowledgement that seafarers have suffered greatly during the pandemic, despite being key workers, there was optimism amongst the panelists that the pandemic has increased awareness of the need to address seafarer mental health issues and that this topic was now more firmly embedded within shipping company strategies.
Revd. Canon Andy Bowerman, Regional Director, The Mission to Seafarers, said, “I see a lot of hope, as at last seafarers are receiving the credit that is due to them and recognition of mental health issues has been raised more generally in society, as well as in the shipping industry. We are at a pivot point, however and we need to do more to address cultural nuances and to provide more training both at sea and ashore.”
Overall, there was agreement that the pandemic has had a positive impact in changing the culture around mental health and to some extent de-stigmatising it. More needed to be done though to improve ship to shore communications, boost crew social interactions, ensure all vessels have good internet access and to spot the warning signs early. There was also agreement that seafarers need to have priority access to Covid vaccination programmes and urged governments to take action to ensure they are protected as a matter of urgency.