Depression Mental Health Wellbeing at Sea
Friday, May 24, 2019
Depression and Mental Health: Working the “Dream Job” onboard a Superyacht
Whatever field you work in, the hardest obstacle to overcome regarding mental health is the stereotype surrounding it. Those struggling with depression or anxiety are afraid of being deemed “crazy” or “unstable,” possibly even risking the loss of their job. With the attitude people as a whole have towards mental health, it’s easy to keep quiet about one’s struggles, but the ramifications of doing so are dangerous.
In the yachting industry, it’s even harder. Surrounded by those with an old school mentality, you’re often told to just toughen up or quit. If you can’t keep up with the big dogs, then just stay on land. This coupled with the extended time out at sea and the work-hard-play-hard atmosphere many yachts have with tax-free earnings lead largely to overdrinking and drug abuse. With outside influences such as these, distress and depression are more and more prevalent.
Just to throw some kindling on the fire, all the crew’s friends back home post about their activities on Facebook and Instagram, making their lives look full and perfect. Comparing their own monotonous, empty lives to these images is extremely detrimental to their mental state.
Additionally, working on a yacht is extremely taxing. You’re required to work long days and sleep short nights. Burnout and fatigue take over much more quickly than they do in other careers, especially with the isolation those on the crew feel, away from their friends, family, and homes. They can spend anywhere from days to years at a time at sea.
The World Health Organization (WHO) did a study of seafarers’ mental health and found that over a quarter of seafarers display signs of depression; many are too embarrassed to ask for help, not realizing that it’s okay to not be okay. Seafarers struggling with depression have a high risk of committing suicide; they are, in fact, the second highest at-risk group globally according to WHO.
It’s time to start taking depression onboard seriously.
Those of us who have never experienced working on a superyacht may think it’s the dream job, but the reality is quite different. It is both mentally and physically straining, and 45% of those seafarers who reported symptoms of depression asked no one for help. While a third had turned to family of friends, only 21% actually spoke to a colleague at sea.
Maritime Charity Sailors’ Society, which works with seafarers in 91 ports around the world, is one of the few organizations offering counselling and support to those struggling with depression.
According to the World Health Organization (www.who.int):
- Depression is common, affecting about 121 million people worldwide.
- Depression is among the leading causes of disability worldwide.
- Depression can be reliably diagnosed and treated in primary care.
- Fewer than 25 percent of those affected have access to effective treatments.
- Depression occurs in persons of all genders, ages and backgrounds.
Why are crews getting depressed at sea?
There are a number of factors involved, such as unpredictable work schedules and demands, long working hours, difficulty adapting to unfamiliar environment and cultures, feelings of isolation and loneliness, unrealistic work expectations, and confined living and working conditions. Crews often go several days without the ability to communicate with the outside world; in fact, at times it feels like prison. With terms like Sea Jail, Prison, or Floating Cell, M/Y Alcatraz thrown around just to name a few.
Back-to-back voyages leave crew members away from their families for long periods of time, during holidays, and they often don’t know when they will return. Mental health problems are often strongly linked to long hours and fatigue. As a result, depression, psychotic breakdown, and even suicide is relatively common amongst seafarers.
It’s the little things you miss at home.
“Recent research by IMO [International Maritime Organization] indicates that seafarers may be more likely than their shore counterparts to experience mental health problems.”
Could you go for a run this week if you wanted? Or stop at the store and grab some groceries? Cook your own meal? Or even go out for dinner? Could you go for a walk with friends or drive somewhere to spend time with loved ones? These are simple day-to-day activities that we often take for granted. A crew member can’t do any of these things; in fact, he can’t even decide what he gets to eat. They have little to no freedom.
Whether you have a big, loving family, or little to none, everyone misses home while they are at sea. Christmas, birthdays, celebrations, weddings, and funerals go by, and little by little, your loved ones become accustomed to your absence while you grow lonelier.
Warning signs to look out for in a fellow crew member
Samaritans, a UK organization providing confidential emotional support service for anyone in the UK and Ireland, lists these signs of depression or mental distress to watch out for:
- Being irritable or nervous
- A change in routine, such as sleeping or eating less than normal
- Drinking, smoking or using drugs more than usual
- Being un-typically clumsy or accident-prone
- Becoming withdrawn or losing touch with friends and family
- Losing interest in appearance. For example: dressing badly, no longer wearing makeup, not washing regularly
- Making leading statements, such as, “You wouldn't believe what I've been through” or, “It’s like the whole world is against me.” People sometimes say these things in the hope someone will ask what they mean so that they can talk about it.
- Putting themselves down in a serious or jokey way, for example: “Oh, no one loves me,” or “I'm a waste of space.”
“It’s difficult to complain to the captain if you feel stressed, lonely or overworked during charter, when it’s exactly what is expected when you enter this career. From the long, hard working hours and intensive living arrangements, to the great wages and fun lifestyle (off charter).”
Solving the problem of depression at sea – red or blue pill
The answer, at first, may be to just leave, but it’s not so simple as that. Many on the crew have spent thousands of dollars on their training and many years at sea; they barely even know how to survive ashore, and some of them are providing for families back home.
Mental health and wellbeing need to become a higher priority onboard superyachts.
“More in-depth training is required for a variety of health problems especially regarding mental health of seafarers onboard and to spot the signs,” said another.
An increasing number of support services and guidance resources are now available, and
charities and foundations, such as Mission to Seafarers and the Seafarers Hospital Society, provide excellent support and resources aimed at seafarers’ mental health, as well. Services such as Big White Wall offer anonymous digital support to help people experiencing common mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.
Seeing a health care professional as soon as possible is crucial to overcoming mental illness, according to the Mental Health Foundation. “If you are concerned that you are developing a mental health problem you should seek the advice and support of your GP as a matter of priority,” they advise.
1 800 784 2433
1 800 273 8255
08457 90 90 90
13 11 14
International Suicide Hotline:
While these resources are great, more needs to be done. Very few seafarers have the luxury of a company doctor; many only have shore-side medical teams they can call on for emergencies, and the medical professionals on the ship are under trained.
So, what are the rules regarding access to professional healthcare offshore? Well, shipowners are obliged under MLC 2006, to ensure that they provide, “access to prompt and adequate medical care whilst working on board.” Seafarers should also be provided “with medical care as comparable as possible to that which is generally available to workers ashore.”
The decision is ultimately up to ship managers and owners. They must decide whether or not they will care for their crew. If they make the effort to improve life on board, many issues with depression can be avoided. Rotation, planned holidays, crew team building activities, quality crew gyms and downtime are all a great start in the right direction which some Yachts already provide.
What are your thoughts? Is this just how yachting life is, or should we change our ways and promote mental health awareness, shaking the current attitude?
Is there life after a career at Sea? Read our post about land based careers to find out.