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Safeguarding seafarers’ mental health

Safeguarding seafarers’ mental health

Every second week of October since 1994, we have observed National Mental Health Week, as mandated by Proclamation No. 452, signed by former President Fidel V. Ramos. October 10 also happens to be World Mental Health Day. These are occasions meant to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and intensify efforts to promote mental health.

Why is this relevant to seafarers? Seafaring is a rigorous, demanding profession, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. Our seafarers need to be in excellent shape to be able to perform their functions well.

It has become a source of grave concern, however, that these very rigors and demands inherent in the job may be posing the toughest challenges to seafarers, often affecting their mental health. The UK P& I Club revealed that suicides comprise 15% of fatalities at sea, making it the most prevalent cause of onboard deaths. This is a real cause for worry for us who have only our seafarers’ welfare at heart.

As Maritime Ambassador of the International Maritime Organization, I am pushing for the industry to broaden its reach and encourage the younger generation to seriously consider a career at sea and in different sectors of the industry. We want to ensure a sustained, uninterrupted availability of maritime experts who would continue to elevate the shipping industry. This requires every seafarer to have a high level of competency, commitment, as well as physical and mental well-being.

I was therefore happy to have participated at a recent event aimed at raising awareness of the significance of mental health and psychological wellness in the lives of our global maritime professionals.
While a career in seafaring may be rewarding, it can also cause undue stress. A 2013 study by Swansea University revealed that shipping’s suicide rate is second only to that of coal-mining.

Another recent study by Yale University and International Maritime Charity Sailors’ Society showed that 26 percent of the world’s seafarers show signs of depression. At least 1,000 seafarers involved in the study had reported feeling “down, depressed or hopeless for several days over a period of two weeks.” Isolation from families, the time spent at sea as per employment contract, and even the quality and amount of food served onboard were cited as factors affecting their mental health.

What makes it worse is that most seafarers who experience depression do not seek help. In that study made by International Maritime Charity Sailors’ Society and Yale University, 45% of seafarers who had shown symptoms of depression said they had not asked anybody for help, while around one-third said they had confided to family and/or friends. Only 21% said they had opened up to a colleague aboard ship.

With the recent enactment of the Mental Health Act, we have reason to hope that this tendency to hide mental health issues may soon be a thing of the past. Senator Rissa Hontiveros, author and principal sponsor of the law, expressed hope that “The people’s mental health issues will now cease to be seen as an invisible sickness spoken only in whispers.”

If we are more sensitive and recognize signs of stress, we are better able to offer help. Nervousness, forgetfulness, and anxiety, could be warning signs, along with frustration and irritability. So are changes in sleeping and eating patterns, loss of concentration, and feelings of helplessness. Left unaddressed, stress could lead to depression, which could undermine a seafarer’s performance, putting the entire ship at risk.

Seafarers therefore should not hesitate to talk about their mental condition to their immediate officer or to their captain who, on his part, must assure them that their job security is not at risk. A major part of our role in protecting our interests as a maritime nation, is by looking out for our fellow men and women in uniform.

We owe it to them and to their families who pin their hopes and dreams on the seafaring profession; to the young people we are urging to be part of this lifeblood industry. The future of the industry and the nation as a whole depends on it.

Every effort helps. Individually and collectively, we can make a difference. Let us not think that what we do is just a drop in the ocean. As Mother Teresa said, “if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”