Extended crew isolation negatively impacts mental health at sea

Navigator, pilot, alone on the bridge performing his duties with VHF radio, binoculars on board of a ship. Credit: Denys Yelmanov / iStock / Getty Images Plus

I have responded to more incidents of seafarers attacking their shipmates, more confirmed suicides, and more people missing overboard (suspected suicides) in 2020 than in any other year of my career. The number of such incidents we are seeing at Navigate Response has nearly doubled.

What is causing these incidents ? I believe we are seeing a deterioration in mental health associated with the ongoing crew change crisis and the extended isolation of those onboard. A study published in the International Journal of Stress Management by J Rengamani and M Sakhtivel Murugan found that separation from family was a key stressor for those serving at sea.

Another study published in 2019, by the International Transport Workers’ Federation Seafarers’ Trust and Yale University found that seafarers reported being most unhappy when their voyages were unexpectedly extended. For many, the separation in 2020 has now extended to lengths not seen in modern times and it is gradually affecting their mental health. Our industry takes physical safety seriously, but mental health does not receive nearly enough attention.

The safety issues associated with poor mental health are clear when a seafarer causes harm to himself and others. However, mental health can also impact safety in less obvious ways, such as reduced alertness that can contribute to collisions, and stress that can lead to health complications such as heart attacks.

Isolation is one of the biggest problems, but also one of the easiest to understand and fix. As a communications and social media specialist, this is the part of the solution I am focusing on. Internet access on board is sought after (just ask the master of Wakashio who, according to media reports, was allegedly trying to get mobile data by navigating closer to land when his vessel hit a reef in Mauritius in July) and it is becoming less expensive.

Companies should make internet access available on board so seafarers can stay in touch with their support structures – friends and family. No doubt unlimited use of social media can contribute to isolation if seafarers spend less time in communal areas. Arrangements such as only having Wi-Fi in the mess can help strike a good balance.

Isolation is a risk to seafarers’ health and the safety of the ships they sail on. When we think of safety, we must also consider mental health.