A new report from the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has highlighted a worrying pattern of generally poor mental health and even suicide among seafarers.
The report, Suicide and Seafarers, has been released to coincide with the end of Maritime Safety week. The results, which were obtained through discussions with shipowners, chaplains, unions and charities, showed that there is still a stigma around the discussion of mental health and suicide among seafarers, with many feeling unable to talk about their difficulties or access services.
This unwillingness to reach out was also worsened by concerns over confidentiality.
Seafarer's mental wellbeing is being affected by long working hours, isolation, fatigue, and financial instability, with Covid-19 further adding to the strain, the report found. Mental health issues were described as poorly understood, both among seafarers and across the industry. The level of mental health support on offer varies significantly depending on employer.
The report also highlights deficiencies in the recording and reporting of suicide, and as a result has already been used to advocate for an international database to record the manner and cause of crew deaths at sea at the International Labour Organisation. There is still no agreed international framework for recording suicides at sea, which is believed to lead to underreporting.
Participants widely acknowledged that this is a self-evidently serious issue, about which the industry can and should do more. They believed that embedding mental health 'fitness' from the top down – through organisational and onboard culture – and from the bottom up – through cadet training and recruitment approaches – is central to improving the situation.
In connection with the report, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has announced the launch of its Wellbeing at Sea Tool to address mental health issues among seafarers. This is an anonymised survey that seafarers can take, which provides them with practical mental health advice but then passes the data to managers so that the organisation can monitor employees.
This is billed by Maritime Minister Robert Courts as part of the government's nine-point plan to improve working conditions for seafarers.