Sailing towards improved mental health 

As of July this year, the Bahamas Maritime Authority has recognised a new course offered by Isca Wellbeing. Frankie Youd speaks with Isca Wellbeing director John Burden, to find out about the course and its development.

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In 2021 we have been presented with technological advances, rocket races to the moon, new breakthroughs in science and much more. However, alongside all this achievement one area is still facing setbacks: mental health.

The topic of mental health is still regarded by many as a stigma, a taboo topic that cannot be brought up and discussed, especially in working environments. This often leads to individuals suppressing their emotional state or being uninformed as to what they might be experiencing.

However, mental health and seafarer wellbeing has been an area that organisations and companies have been prioritising recently, especially due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has left many seafarers stranded, uncertain as to when they will be able to return home.

This heightened awareness has seen Isca Wellbeing developing a two-day seafarer mental health and wellbeing course, based on the Maritime Charities Group Mental Health Awareness & Wellbeing Training Standard. The course, specially designed for seafarers, helps them to understand mental health disorders, their causes, and recognise behaviour in themselves and others – as well as guidance on how to respond to behaviour changes.

Isca Wellbeing director, John Burden

The course

For many years the Bahamas Maritime Authority (BMA) has taken a proactive stance when it comes to looking at the wellbeing of seafarers, which led the authority to launch its own Seafarer Covid-19 Welfare Survey. The authority was eager to give recognition to a training course that would not only benefit crew on BMA flagged vessels, but also those within the global shipping industry.

The two-day course – also recognised by the Merchant Navy Training Board and UK Chamber of Shipping – focuses on the different types of poor mental health and their causes; how to recognise changes in behaviour in yourself and others; and understanding the psychological, physical, and behavioural signs of poor mental health.

Seafarers are also taught how to respond to a crisis, such as a panic attack or a suicide; how to avoid judging and stigmatising mental health; tips on sleep and diet; as well as a lesson on the ‘5 Ways to Wellbeing’. These five key concepts focus on connecting with others, staying active, taking notice, continued learning, and giving to others.

The course is about raising mental health awareness, specifically within the maritime environment

“The course is about raising mental health awareness, specifically within the maritime environment. We’re not training seafarers how to cure mental illness or treat people with mental health conditions,” says Isca Wellbeing director, John Burden.

“What it's really about is how to recognise distress and how to avoid judging and stigmatising those who are suffering from poor mental health. We teach some simple techniques in case someone you work with is facing a mental health crisis, and give information on where to signpost those who need help.”

The course participants – which include both seafarers and shore-based personnel – have reported positive benefits of the course and its guidance, with course feedback showing that 100% of the delegates feel that they now have the knowledge to recognise signs of poor mental health not only in themselves but others too.

Feedback also shows that after completing the course, delegates feel that they can respond to a fellow seafarer if they are facing a mental health low or crisis.

The backstory

Before the development of the course, Isca Wellbeing ran a crewing agency for security guards supplied to work on cruise ships. When Covid-19 struck, the company’s attention was drawn to their security guards who were stuck onboard ships and were worried about their safety, their families, and job security.

“The cruise industry was in a lot of the headlines at the beginning of the pandemic, it was a bit scary, and it was seen as this petri dish, perhaps unfairly,” explains Burden.

“You've got a lot of crew on board a ship who are carrying around the stress of everyday life, you add the additional stress that work brings, and then dump Covid-19 and all those worries on top, when you could be thousands of miles from home and loved ones... how will that stress manifest? For our security crew, we felt we should probably look at doing something for their wellbeing onboard.”

This discussion prompted the company to begin researching seafarer mental health in more detail via various studies carried out by universities, industry professionals, and organisations. One study that the company looked at for research was ‘Re:fresh Study on the Wellbeing of 17.000 Seafarers during Covid-19’, which provides information surrounding seafarers’ mental health, stress levels, and depression levels.

Feedback from delegates who completed Isca Wellbeing's 2-Day Seafarer Mental Health Awareness & Wellbeing Training' course. Credit: Isca Wellbeing.

The study shows that stress levels reported by seafarers during the pandemic are largely the same as before the pandemic. However, the equivalent of 1.5 seafarers per vessel are now rated as ‘moderately high or severely depressed’. The study also found that an average of one seafarer per vessel suffers from anxiety, with data showing that younger seafarers often have the highest levels of depression and anxiety.

Although this data illustrates that low or declining mental health is an issue amongst seafarers, the way that it is presented can have a detrimental impact on highlighting its importance.

Burden explains: “The way you use the data and the way you deliver your results changes how shipping companies are going to listen to them. If you say: “80% of seafarers reported that they have high levels of wellbeing.” That's the headline, so 80% have high levels of wellbeing, this is great, whereas if you say “20% depressed” they're getting that information differently.”

The future: Reducing the stigma

Although conversations surrounding mental health are less stigmatised now compared to previous generations, many people still feel unable to discuss the issue with co-workers or managers.

To further help seafarers when it comes to their own mental health journey, suggestions have been made that a handful of individuals within shipping organisations could be trained on the topic of mental health, to provide guidance and advice to those in need and increase confidence surrounding mental health discussion in the workplace.

Speaking on the future and how to reduce the stigma Burden says: “I would like to see mental health get to a stage where it is less stigmatised, and it's regarded in the same way as physical health onboard, or safety. Although we have a long way to go, I personally think that the UK is pretty advanced in this area so it would be good to see that internationally. Within shipping, there's a lot of talk about resilience.”

I would like to see mental health get to a stage where it is less stigmatised, and it's regarded in the same way as physical health onboard, or safety

“Resilience really pushes it back onto the responsibility to the seafarers to toughen up. You want to build resilience, yes, but you need to have a greater understanding that if people are mentally well then they will be more resilient – when they're faced with stressful situations their capacity to handle those situations will be greater.”

As well as hopes to reduce the overall stigma surrounding mental health, Isca Wellbeing has been working closely with several cadets who are suffering from poor mental health.

The ratio of poor mental health is higher amongst them as well as a heightened awareness of mental health compared to senior members of staff. Burden states that the company would like to “continue to focus on cadets” to ensure they are receiving the assistance and guidance they need.

“Mental health doesn't mean being mentally unwell or mentally ill,” Burden highlights. “It's the spectrum of your health – mental health is good mental health and it's bad mental health in the same way as physical health.”