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Crew change crisis fallout: mental health issues on rise

Crew change crisis fallout: mental health issues on rise
John Snyder 19 Mar 2021

Seafarers’ psychological and emotional well-being is a primary concern for offshore vessel operators, shipowners and shipmanagement companies

The impact of Covid-19 crew change crisis on the mental health of seafarers has resulted in alarming consequences. The number of critical incidents and suicides onboard is increasing, a sign professional mental health support is urgently needed, according to mental health professionals including clinical psychologists at Mental Health Support & Solutions (MHSS), specialists in mental health support and guidance for the maritime sector.

MHSS provides its support and guidance to seafarers with one-to-one therapy, and a free mental health hotline number ensures round the clock confidential and psychological support for employees onboard and ashore.

But analysis of data generated by MHSS over the three months to the end of February 2021 showed anxiety among those onboard ship remained a growing issue with burnout and depression being widely reported in the first month of the study. It showed burnout and depression require a sustained and long-term approach to treatment, so these problems are likely to rise again as they are re-triggered by events.

December saw an increase in counselling interaction, and out of the three months, generated the highest level of critical incidents. Reports related to Covid-19 to do with anxiety, fatigue and worry about lack of control over external factors are also on the rise – a correlation that has been confirmed through MHSS’ interaction with vessel masters.

There has also been increased reporting of incidents by Eastern European crew, with the incidents spanning all severity levels from critical to low.

MHSS managing director and clinical psychologist Charles Watkins said there was a trend towards the end of the reporting period for more moderate to high level incidents than previously seen.

“There is some positive news, as low-level incidents are being managed locally by techniques learnt through training and high-risk incidents escalated to MHSS,” said Dr Watkins.

“In February 2021, MHSS’ Russian team assisted a serious case of psychological disablement, restoring the affected seafarer (onboard) to full working capability and, in so doing, preventing a deviation and loss of service or interruption to the vessel in question,” he added.

According to the report, there is an increased continuous and repeated use of the MHSS mental health hotline from seafarers once initial contact is established.

This likely diffuses a lot of situations amongst those who engage – before they arise or escalate.

Young cadets are a risk group on vessels as they have less experience in being able to cope with stressors at sea. Therefore, older more experienced seafarers must offer this group guidance and support, MHSS said.

There is also an increase in interactions from Eastern European ratings and officers. Given that this group is typically reluctant to interact, the underlying feeling of discontent is likely to be much higher, according to MHSS – especially amongst those who do not interact with the support MHSS offers.

“We expect to see an increase in anxiety regarding Covid-related travel complications and limited crew changes,” Dr Watkins stressed.