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Mental Health Awareness at Sea

Mental Health Awareness at Sea – It’s time we talk about it!

Mental health is a topic which needs to be talked about. In the last year or so there has been a spate of suicides on and off board amongst crew. Whilst I personally haven’t been touched by this in the yachting world, I have seen a few lads I know from back at home commit suicide in the last year. Whilst some were completely unexpected some of them did display some warning signs. I have written this blog so crew can read this and hopefully learn a little more about what to look out for in their fellow crew members or where they can find help if they have an issue themselves.

One source estimates suicide amongst crew (across all maritime sectors) to have trebled in recent years. Mental health will affect 1 in 4 of us at least and all the statistics out there show this appears to be rocketing, especially among the younger generation.

Living and working at sea, spending long periods away from home and a lack of personal time due to long hours and tiredness can massively add to the mental strain people are under. The elephant in the room is that a lot of crew also abuse alcohol and drugs, neither of which is conducive to good mental health. Yachting has historically been an industry which has embraced a ‘just man up and get on with it’ attitude combined with a healthy dose of ‘work hard / play hard.’

I now think that it is probably a good time for yachting to take a slightly more considered approach to crew welfare. Whilst some yachts do an amazing job, many don’t.

Warning signs of mental health problems:

  • Drastic changes in normal personality eg a loud person becoming withdrawn or a laid back person becoming snappy
  • Drastic changes in behaviour eg hugely excessive exercising, eating etc
  • Drop in work performance
  • Inappropriate interaction with friends / colleagues
  • Apathy / drop in motivation
  • Drastic changes to sleep patterns eg sleeping much more or much less
  • Illogical and irrational thinking / conversations
  • Increase in alcohol and drug consumption
  • Impulsive, reckless behaviour ranging from physical safety to money
  • Lack of self care, personal hygiene
  • Withdrawal from people, interests etc
  • References and jokes about suicide

This is a far from exhaustive list but it gives you something to be going on. Unfortunately a lot of the symptoms contradict others and there are plenty of yacht crew who display some of the symptoms and aren’t ill at all. I think the big thing to look for are changes in behaviour which will often manifest itself in the symptoms above.

So, if you’re currently at sea – How could you source help?

One of the most up to date services to use is ‘Big White Wall’ (BWW) it is an anonymous online service that is manned by mental health professionals and offers self-help programmes and one-to-one counselling. Normally there is a charge to access the BWW, but the Seafarers’ Hospital Society is funding free access to the service for seafarers accessing the service in the UK, while in port or onshore. If not in the UK there is a small monthly subscription.  The programme gives crew the tools and guidance they need to help themselves, this can be done via courses, face-to-face counselling from trained professionals via skype or even community support on the BBW’s online chat room.

Another option is to become a member of International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) who offer a 24 hour helpline which seafarers can call and discuss any concerns they have. This helpline has seen 37% more calls in the last 2 years related to mental health.

What can I do to help a colleague?

The most obvious one! Just talk to them. Maybe it isn’t someone you get on with incredibly well but if you think they are suffering then at an appropriate moment ask them if they are ok. Just listening is a great start. Never be judgmental and always be supportive. Empathise with the person who is struggling. Even if what you hear is a little shocking or upsetting you have to stay calm and supportive. Be patient and let the person talk in their own time so they feel as comfortable as possible.

On a more practical level there are a few things you can do. If you think the person is in imminent danger then speak to the Captain discretely and explain the situation. If you have no faith that they will handle it in an appropriate manner then try the HOD who you think will. This is a hard one as you may be breaking a confidence. You will have to treat it on a case by case basis.

If the crew member in question is regularly abusing drink and drugs then encourage them to minimise that as much as possible. On the crew night out be the boring one who says that a round of shots is a bad idea. Monitor your own alcohol intake and keep an eye on your friend even if it means staying out later than you would like. Statistics show over 25% of suicides are drunk at the time. When peoples judgement is impaired they are more likely to do something impulsive and stupid.

If they are being excluded by a clique of people on board then include them in things. Pathetic crew mess politics can be awful for someone if they are already in a bad place. No one wants to think people are bitching about them or don’t like them. Especially if they are already feeling depressed.

Encourage exercise. Whether that is a big group of you playing sports or just the two of you hitting the gym or going for a run. Exercise is proven to be great for improving people’s outlook on life and the release of endorphins afterwards can only benefit the situation.

To sum up what you can do… be nice. Always think of others and embrace your caring side.

This is such a broad, in depth subject that I have no doubt missed loads out. But this should give everyone a few ideas on how to handle a bad situation and hopefully makes a little bit of difference to some crew somewhere.

Mental Health Awareness at Sea

About the author

Tim Clarke

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