A wake up call on mental health

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During a ‘Wellness at Sea’ conference in March last year, held by the British Sailor’s Society, I was struck by the powerful presentations on the significance of the impact of mental health matters on shipboard operations. We heard personal stories from research organisations, shipowners, ship managers, and seafarers who have suffered from mental health issues that may not have been understood by their shipmates or employers.

During the conference, I recognised in myself all the symptoms described to indicate that I too was suffering from clinical depression. Having recently gone through a ‘career changing moment’, I was desperately – and I use the word ‘desperately’ carefully – seeking employment, without success at that time. The ‘black dog’, as Churchill described his own depression, was alive and well, and frequently barked in my head at all times of the day and night, and he had been there for quite a long time.

This was not something that I was expecting to have to recognise, nor was I too open to the idea of disclosing this to anybody. If I was not prepared to do so, how could I expect fellow shipmates to volunteer their own problems to the caring master?

For many years, the Nautical Institute has promoted the importance of the human element. For my own part, I have been keen to provide the master and those aspiring to command with some insight towards some of the ‘soft skills’ that are an integral part of command, but which are not necessarily addressed in our Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW)-based professional qualifications.

I strongly believe that masters have a pastoral role for those under their command. We do not address this in professional training and I would suggest that many masters find great difficulties in dealing with such complex, private, and personal issues. How does the master recognise the seafarer who is in desperate need of help but unable or unwilling to ask for it? What skills and knowledge do masters require and deserve to enable them to do so?

And let us not pretend that masters are immune from these problems themselves. Before that career changing moment, I was a master of a high-profile ship with a very capable, competent, professional, and seemingly stable crew, but I knew only too well that a number of them had personal problems that were affecting their work.

I think that I am a very caring person and I take my pastoral responsibilities very seriously. However, in trying to assist my colleagues and to seek a compassionate, pragmatic, and practical resolution, who could I turn to? These issues are very private and I was hardly able to discuss these with my heads of department or other colleagues. Should I discuss this with my crew or technical managers? Trust is a two-way street and I would not wish to lose the trust of my shipmates by being seen to ‘tell tales out of school’.

When I did ask for help and guidance from my ship managers, the outcome was not particularly helpful, sympathetic, or compassionate. Without guidance, I would stay awake at night mulling over the problems in my head. We all have a responsibility to ensure that we address the best welfare facilities and services for our seafarers, onboard and ashore. More importantly, there is a vital need for owners and managers to support all the seafarers that provide them with their income, and to ensure that there is an appropriate mechanism to support those that need help in accessing that help. My plea would be to ensure that the seafarers know that support is available to them, and that senior officers are provided with appropriate training to enable them to provide ‘first aid welfare’ before, perhaps, referring their colleagues to more professional help.

A version of this article orginally appeared in Seaways, the magazine of the Nautical Institute.