Empty oceanMental health has been a prevalent topic for some time now, but never has it been more important than now. With sweeping lockdown restrictions in place across the world, many people are struggling to cope with their new realities.

Seafarers are already familiar with being away from family or friends for extended periods and managing the boredom and isolation that comes with being in confined spaces for a long time. These are all aspects which the rest of the population now have to adjust to in order to deal with COVID-19 restrictions.

Added stress

However, these are unprecedented times, which have left several ships and their crews stranded out at sea. The coronavirus outbreak and strict quarantine measures mean seafarers are struggling to sign off from ships and facing extended periods of time on board.

Loneliness, isolation and boredom can quickly set in, leading to anxiety and even depression. Both are crippling illnesses in themselves — but when combined with a global pandemic, they are likely to be increasingly heightened.

Not only will seafarers be concerned about their own health, but they will also be worried about the health of their friends and families back home. With limited information on when the situation will improve, anxiety will also be at an all-time high.

These added stresses will have a significant impact on their mental health and overall wellbeing. As such, it is essential that seafarers can take control of their mental health and given the support they need to maintain their wellbeing.

Duty of care

The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) is a membership organisation that works to promote and support the welfare of seafarers all over the world. It offers a wide range of resources and guidance about mental health.

However, shipowners also have a duty to take reasonable care for the welfare of their seafarers — especially during testing times like these. Equally, companies must look at the ways in which they can change or adapt their processes to help support better mental wellbeing on board.

This might include offering counselling services and encouraging seafarers to seek help when needed through a positive and open workplace culture. The best role models to take on this task while at sea are often the Senior Officers and Captains.

Having access to varied, healthy and good-quality food — as well as comfortable facilities to rest and sleep in — can also help to improve seafarers’ time on board.

Offering sports and leisure activities such as basketball, table tennis, darts, cards and board or video games will also help promote social interaction and encourage seafarers to support each other.

Yet, perhaps one of the most important things companies can do to improve mental wellbeing is to provide access to the internet so that seafarers can stay connected with their friends and families at all times. In fact, many seafarers have identified free, unlimited internet access as being crucial to their happiness on board.

It is also important to remember that everyone on board has a responsibility to everyone else. As such, appropriate training is vital to ensure seafarers can recognise the signs of stress and anxiety in themselves and others — and then rally around and provide support to those who need it.

Making mental wellbeing a priority

Although it will take some time and it is hard to pinpoint when, the coronavirus crisis will end. While most of the general population will be able to return to some sense of normality, the reality is that loneliness, isolation and boredom is the norm for many seafarers working long stretches out at sea.

But the shipping industry needs seafarers. It is, therefore, vital to make and continue making the mental health and wellbeing of every seafarer on board a ship the number one priority.

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