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Calls for Crew Wellbeing to be Enshrined in Law

Calls for Crew Wellbeing to be Enshrined in Law
Helen Kelly - 13th June 2019 |

As shocking statistics on seafarer suicides and depression are published, calls are growing for crew wellbeing to be linked with ship safety and included in international regulations. Meanwhile, shipowners are being urged to improve onboard internet access, as an increasing body of research underlines the importance of connectivity in combatting loneliness and isolation.

There are growing calls within the maritime industry for the mental health of seafarers to be given the same importance as vessel safety – and enshrined in maritime law. The groundswell of support comes as shocking data into seafarer mental health and suicide is published by the Sailors’ Society maritime welfare charity.

Almost 6% of deaths at sea are attributable to suicide, and this figure rises dramatically if probable suicides are considered – i.e. seafarers going missing at sea under suspicious circumstances – according to RT Iversen’s respected study The Mental Health of Seafarers.

Long contracts at sea, thousands of miles away from families and friends, can be incredibly isolating and challenging, especially with inconsistent or no internet access. The Sailors’ Society found in a joint study with Yale University that more than a quarter of seafarers suffer from depression – and many won’t ask for help.

‘For too many, the pressure feels unbearable,’ said Sailors’ Society deputy CEO Sandra Welch. The charity’s Not On My Watch Campaign, launched in May 2019, calls for wellbeing training to be enshrined in the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), which sets out internationally-agreed minimum working and living rights for seafarers including minimum age, medical certification, and training qualifications.

The Sailors’ Society director of media and advocacy Melanie Warman told the Telegraph that changing the MLC would be a huge undertaking. ‘This is not something that is easy to do. But we are not going to be put off by that. It probably means it is even more important to achieve.’

Beach contemplation Unsplash Stefan Spassov

Image: Unsplash
Stuck in the stone age

Campaigners who want seafarer wellbeing aligned with safety as part of the international regulatory framework see it as both an awareness raising tactic and a baseline for minimum training required.

‘We are still in the stone age when it comes to our approach to mental health crises,’ Nautical Institute representative Bridget Hogan told an industry audience at the 2019 Maritime HR Conference in London. ‘There are a huge number of people out there who don’t get support.’

Ms Hogan says that mental health awareness should be introduced as part of first aid officer training under the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978.

STCW sets minimum qualification standards for masters, officers and watch personnel on seagoing merchant ships and large yachts. At present the mandatory exercise does not include mental health training for first aid officers.

Mandatory training in mental health awareness under STCW could run in parallel with any initiatives at the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Ms Hogan said. She has floated this idea at several international forums and reported being mocked for ‘wanting to turn the first aid officer into a psychologist’.

‘The first aid officer doesn’t need to perform an appendix operation, but s/ he does need to know it’s important and needs to get help,’ she said. However, the idea of standardising mental health training falls flat with some wellness campaigners.

Andrew Cowderoy is CEO of the Maritime Wellness Institute and a former seafarer who was deemed unfit for sea due to inflammatory bowel disease that ‘stopped his career before it started’. He told the Maritime HR Conference that in an ideal world every ship would be a well ship that is well cared for and has standard training on mental and physical health – but that every culture has a different way of responding to mental health.

This cultural divide means training should be tailored to individual situations and the cultural diversity onboard, he said.

Speaker Andrew Dudzinski is chairman and CEO of MHG Insurance, which co-published a report into safety conditions aboard superyachts last year, along with the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and Inmarsat. He said that the MLC has raised awareness of mental health issues, but it doesn’t solve everything in one go.

Having a command structure onboard in which senior crew members seek the opinions of, and collaborate with, all crew onboard was one significant factor in creating a happy ship, the research found. ‘Happy crew make a happy ship,’ Mr Dudzinski said.

Enshrining wellness training into regulation would not necessarily combat exterior forces that can affect mental health – cultural isolation, bullying, harassment and poor leadership models can all impact crew wellbeing.