Tackling crew depression and anxiety

Katie Higginbottom, head of ITF. Credit: ITF

ITF and Yale University research reveals high figures for crew depression, anxiety, and suicide. The industry has a moral and economic imperative to treat the issue seriously

A recent article in an online maritime publication described the rescue of livestock from a grounded ship. It mentioned that 40 of the 244 cattle had perished so far and that the accident had happened in a remote and beautiful part of the South American nation, Chile. It also said that the vessel had grounded after the ship’s master hanged himself. Nothing more on that.

Although it did mention that local authorities are looking at sanctioning the shipowner over the accident and the animals’ conditions. In the absence of further details, it is perhaps not helpful to speculate on this case. However, at a time of increased interest in matters of mental health, it is worth reflecting on circumstances that can lead to such a degree of despair in maritime professionals. Unfortunately, this case is one of many.

The ITF Seafarers’ Trust recently commissioned research with Yale University on seafarers’ mental health looking at causes of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation and seeking to identify ways to mitigate the risks. The results are shocking and depressingly familiar.
The study used a questionnaire including a number of previously tested models to map out the prevalence of mental health issues and their associations with environmental and operation factors experienced at sea.

The study analysed 1,572 responses from a fairly representative cohort of seafarers over a variety of vessel types and trades and concluded that 25% suffered from moderate to severe depression, 17% had anxiety, and 20% had considered self-harm or suicide either several days or every day in the two weeks prior to completing the survey.

These are extraordinarily high figures when compared with studies of other populations. Most at risk are young seafarers, at early stages in their careers, and women seafarers. Significantly, seafarers with depression or anxiety were at least twice as likely to have had injuries and or illnesses over the preceding 12 months. Clearly, there is a moral and economic imperative to treat the issue seriously.

The challenges and stresses of living and working at sea are difficult to address, but stress is not always a negative matter. Factors identified in the research, such as poor training and ineffective complaints procedures, had a clear impact on mental health and are much easier to tackle.

Overwhelmingly, seafarers with high levels of depression and anxiety also felt inadequately trained for the tasks they had to perform. They had an inability to influence decisions and reported working in an uncaring environment. Many had also experienced violence in the workplace. Ultimately, seafarers that work for badly managed companies that do not look after their crew have mental health issues – just like the rest of us. The big difference is the fact that seafarers are living and working in a global environment where jurisdiction and employer responsibility remains opaque, despite the best endeavours of the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006.

Implementation and enforcement of standards is still patchy and under-resourced and for all the talk of valuing the ‘human element’ – the lack of permanent contracts in the industry, combined with a ready pool of labour and oversupply of vessels facilitates competition at the expense of crew conditions.

Yes, mental health seems like a very personal matter, but the issues are universal: lack of control, lack of care and support, and lack of power to change things for the better.