Long read: Shipping takes steps to improve seafarer mental health training

The shipping industry is increasing its focus on mental health and wellbeing issues. Credit: Getty Images

There is a need for more maritime-specific mental health training in shipping, according to master mariner and academic Dr Chris Haughton.

Haughton is the author of a good practice guide, The Seafarers’ Mental Health Awareness and Wellbeing Training Standard, for The Maritime Charities Group (MCG) and the Merchant Navy Training Board (MNTB). Launched on 10 July 2020, the guide was designed with seafarer training courses on mental health and well-being in mind.

He told SAS that the reason for creating this guide came from an understanding that while mental health training was available, there was nothing necessarily specific for the maritime sector. Furthermore, even though courses were being developed within the industry, there were no benchmarks by which seafarers or companies could measure if the training itself would be relevant to their needs.

Given that mental health is an ongoing concern in shipping, addressing it directly within an industry-specific context is necessary. The guide was thus created with the help of subject matter experts, which comprised of Marc Williams, recently retired as head of human element at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency; trainers currently working in the field of mental health awareness; and academics working in the field of seafarer education and training.

Additionally, other industries with mental health training were consulted during the creation of the guidelines, particularly the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), which has its own industry-specific standards for training of this nature. While the standard itself is designed to be UK-centric, it is broad enough to be easily adapted to training needs in other countries.

“It’s really important to emphasise that this is not a training course,” Haughton clarified about the standard, noting that control of that remains firmly in the remit of the training provider. He stated that when it came to delivery, mental health experts, counsellors, psychologists, and more are usually considered to deliver this aspect of the course. However, this was perceived as likely to be too generic to fit the specific needs of seafarers, as well as perhaps at too high a level for the courses and content envisioned.

Because the content is aimed to be provided within training establishments, training colleges, and maritime training schools, as well as private training providers, Haughton explained that the standard’s working group attempted to set the bar for mental health and well-being training at a realistic level, rather than a high one. He emphasised that the courses are not created to allow students to qualify as mental health first aid trainers; instead, the materials are intended to encourage and raise awareness and increase the participants’ knowledge surrounding mental health issues. Crucially, this training is intended to build seafarer awareness so they can learn how to signpost and refer people who would need or request additional assistance.

“The aim is to create an awareness and referral service for seafarers,” Haughton said, pointing out that best practice would involve including information for seafarers on referral systems and helplines available within and outside of their institution. The body conducting the training would ideally need to reassess this helpline information every few years to ensure that it is not only up to date but relevant to needs.

Given the constraints of how seafarer training is usually conducted, the standard is intended to be pragmatic regarding the possibility of what can be achieved. It is likely that the course will be delivered by college lecturers, therefore it must be set at a level that can be delivered authentically and effectively, Haughton emphasised. As such, the training would be framed within the scope of the institution’s own policies around mental health awareness and it is hoped that these would function in tandem, according to Haughton.

Independent evaluation

Acting as an independent evaluator, Dr Pennie Blackburn noted that standards for mental health awareness training were very welcome in the industry. She told SAS that the good practice guide provided reasonable guidelines for content and addressed the need for specific contextualised training for the maritime industry.

Blackburn, a consultant clinical psychologist, described the concept of psychological first aid (PFA), which was originally developed for post-disaster response to train first responders and volunteers to provide humane support and to recognise and refer those that may need further support. There are many PFA models that do not require knowledge of psychiatric disorders, which she said could be really helpful when there is limited access to professional support.

However, she noted concerns that no qualified mental health professional provided technical advice to the guidelines to ensure that the standard complies with evidence-based practice and is clinically safe. This would require a person with professional training and experience in mental health, such as a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, to ensure that the guidelines adhered to the primary principle of “do no harm”, she explained.

“I would have liked a distinction to be made in the guidelines between development of course content and delivery/facilitation of course materials,” she said.

In best-practice scenarios, Blackburn noted the development of course content, the training of trainers, and supervision of trainers in the mental health field should be undertaken by or with the technical oversight of a qualified mental health professional, as would be the norm for other technical training. This, she explained, ensured that the evidence base can be appropriately and safely adapted for the specific needs of seafarers. The danger of not consulting with professionals with appropriate mental health expertise is that poorly translated concepts and misinformation is easily spread and could put seafarers at risk, she said.

Facilitators, by contrast, can be drawn from a wider pool of appropriately trained and qualified trainers, which could include maritime professionals and mental health first aid trainers with knowledge of the maritime sector.

Blackburn explained why this should be the case, “In mental health training, it is not uncommon for participants to disclose or raise personal experience of their own mental health and therefore – while it is important that facilitators have experience of the maritime industry – it is equally important that facilitators have the mental health knowledge and experience to ensure the ‘do no harm’ principle is adhered to.” It is possible that facilitators, despite the best of intentions, may not have this knowledge or experience to draw upon.

Further factors

Besides Blackburn’s responses, it is worth noting that Bob Sanguinetti, CEO of the UK Chamber of Shipping, has asked crew to look for the MCG and MNTB logos on training courses. This will assure crew that a mental health and well-being course complies with the basic standards introduced in the guide. However, there is limited oversight as to how compliance with the standard will be judged.

Donna Stevens, MNTB operations manager at the UK Chamber of Shipping, said, “As the standard is purely voluntary and the document produced provides guidance only, there is no formal approval or evaluation required for a centre/organisation to offer the training.” As a result, there is no formal guarantee that those delivering the training will be complying with the guidelines set out in the standard.

That said, while the training around mental health and well-being is largely optional for training centres, companies, and organisations, Stevens noted that, “The MNTB together with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are looking to include a section on mental health awareness into the personal safety and social responsibility section of the safety courses criteria in the forthcoming months.”