Crew’s mental health under greater strain than ever because of pandemic

Although the pandemic has brought under the spotlight the stressful situations in which seafarers worldwide find themselves on a frequent basis, stakeholders in the industry had been making slow progress even before Covid-19 swept the world in early 2020.

This was one of the points noted and raised in a panel held last week at Marine Insurance Asia. The moderator was Kunal Pathak, Loss Prevention Manager Asia at Gard Singapore. He said that crew welfare was very much on the agenda for shipping before Covid-19. The pandemic only made things more difficult and gave it a higher profile. He asked the panellists whether the industry could have done things differently in the past.

Dr Rachel Glynn-Williams, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Qwest Maritime/Recall agreed that, even prior to the pandemic, the industry was becoming more aware of its need to focus on mental health. She noted three studies, the 2019 Mission To Seafarers Happiness Index, a study from out of Cardiff and another from Yale, which, despite the use of different methodologies, all concluded that the most unhappy seafarers were those unable to socialize and those with limited access to internet and shore leave.

Additional paperwork was another stress factor. Glynn-Williams also noted that seafarers at risk would tend to rest during their downtime, rather than to socialize. This did not help their long-term mental well-being.

The Cardiff survey found that within the shipping industry there were different perceptions as to the extent of the problem. Perhaps unsurprisingly, owners and managers tended to think that the problem was less serious and immediate than did the charities and P&I Clubs.

The Yale survey found that 25% of those surveyed reported clinical levels of depression, while 17% cited clinical levels of anxiety. Even before the pandemic Yale found that voyage extensions were a serious factor in mental health decline.

Chirag Bahri, Director of Regions, International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), said that pre-pandemic the network had tended to receive calls on piracy, abandonment, contractual issues, mental and physical health, bullying and harassment.

In 2018-2019 there were about 3,000 cases and around 8,000 seafarers contacted ISWAN’s helpline each year. About 5% were for physical health issues and about 2.5% were for mental stress and depression. About 125 psychological cases were handled in 2019 and there were about 12 cases of suicide.

However, several of the panel participants accepted that reporting could be an issue, given the fact that deaths on board might be a case of a person going missing or, if it could only have been a person overboard, might have been suicide or an accident.

Nicola Mason, Senior Vice President, Deputy Head, Skuld Hong Kong, Skuld (Far East) Ltd, said that, looking at Skuld’s data, about 22% of cases over a 10 year period were crew claims. There had definitely been an increase in such claims for 2020, compared with 2019. Mason noted that the figures for mental health at Skuld and Gard had slowly grown and then stabilized by 2019 at about 2%, but had then grown in 2020. But Mason said that one had to be careful when using such data.

She said that the focus should be “who is suffering?” Skuld had noticed that cadets in recent years were suffering an increase in mental illness. One reason for this  might be that they were not being prepared properly for life at sea.

Mason also noted that part of the problem was that seafarers very often do not ask for help. There was an underreporting of mental illness because there is a stigma surrounding it.

Pathak said that Gard’s experience was very similar when it came to the stigma surrounding mental well-being and that it was this which had an impact on the reliability of the data. He asked the panellists why there was such a stigma associated with mental ill health.

Chris Hall, Managing Director, Hong Kong, The American Club, observed that it was not just a seafarer problem; the stigma associated with mental illness went back to the beginning of time, in all societies.

Although there might be a slow improvement in society’s understanding and tolerance of mental ill-health he observed that in the US a full 33% of people feared being fired if they made a mental health problem known to their bosses. In seafaring the position might be even worse, since Hall understood that there was still something of a macho culture predominating in the seafaring industry, Because of this, admitting to depression would be an admission of a sign of weakness. And 98% of seafarers were men.

“There are social expectations and traditional gender roles in the countries from which seafarers are generally taken that might be at play. We used to admire the strong silent type. That can lead to a toxic masculinity, which in the case of men can lead to death. Seafaring is tough and attracts people who are tough, so those people as a subset of the population might find it even harder to raise their hand to ask for help”, observed Hall.

In the Yale survey the subjects were asked: “Who do you turn to ask for help?” and 45% answered “nobody”. Gard undertook a similar survey and got the same result, with Pathak observing that seafarers’ fears that such an admission might mean they would never be employed at sea again not being an unfounded concern. Some technical managers had said that a history of mental ill health would make it unlikely that they would employ the person as a seafarer.

After Covid-19 arrived, Nicola Mason, Senior Vice President, Deputy Head, Skuld Hong Kong, Skuld (Far East) Ltd, said that every aspect of a seafarer’s life was affected. There were problems getting onto vessels, additional stress while one was on the vessel, and then difficulties getting off. “It’s not a healthy environment”, she said.

The danger was not just from Covid-19, observed mason. When there were non-Covid-19 incidents, such as cancer, a speedy response was much harder to effect.

Kenneth Lim, Assistant Chief Executive (Industry), Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said that the socializing problem became a big difficulty once the pandemic took hold. Singapore used to have four “drop in centres” to permit seafarers to socialize. The pandemic stopped these operating.

Chirag Bahri, Director of Regions, International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), said there had been 37,000 calls since the pandemic began. Lim said that one key learning was the need for cooperation between the various stakeholders, because this meant that different perspectives were brought to the table. Nicola Mason said that at Skuld there had been a pilot programme to train claims handlers, seafarers, shipowners and managers on how to identify mental health issues