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By Conor Feasey

No respite in crew mental health cases

ISWAN has reported a dramatic 58% quarter-on-quarter increase in calls to Yacht Crew Help, with women being affected disproportionately…

There is a significant increase in the number of contacts concerning mental health issues across the helplines operated by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN). Its latest findings over the course of the final quarter of 2023, the surge sheds light on the challenges in maintaining wellbeing at sea, particularly concerning abuse and personal life stressors, with women seafarers disproportionately affected.

“The fact that contacts to ISWAN’s helplines relating to mental health were the highest on record in quarter four is a strong indication that although COVID-19 is behind us, life remains very difficult for many seafarers,” says Simon Grainge, Chief Executive of ISWAN. “There is now much greater understanding across the maritime sector of the specific challenges of maintaining good mental health at sea.”

ISWAN reported a 44% increase in contacts (calls or messages) related to mental health challenges compared to the previous quarter. Between October and December 2023, ISWAN received 128 contacts concerning psychological difficulties, marking a notable rise from the 89 contacts in the preceding quarter.

This surge represents the highest quarterly total since the current helpline reporting system was established in 2019. SeafarerHelp and Yacht Crew Help, ISWAN’s free, confidential helplines for seafarers, recorded the highest number of quarterly contacts related to mental health, with increases of 46% and 58%, respectively.

Issues such as abuse, bullying, harassment, discrimination, and violence were closely linked with mental health difficulties. Approximately 13% of seafarers who reached out to ISWAN’s helplines regarding mental wellbeing concerns between October and December 2023 reported experiencing some form of abuse at sea, including sexual harassment, physical abuse, or nationality-based discrimination. Some seafarers also cited working in highly stressful conditions beyond work time regulations as contributing to their mental health challenges, with fatigue being a significant factor for 11% of respondents.

While working conditions played a pivotal role in the mental health struggles of many seafarers reaching out to ISWAN’s helplines, around 11% cited personal life issues affecting their mental wellbeing. Seafarers sought support from ISWAN to cope with challenges such as strained relationships due to prolonged periods of separation.

Data from ISWAN’s helplines consistently highlights the disproportionate impact of mental health challenges on women seafarers. In the fourth quarter, where the gender identity of the seafarer was known, 24% of individuals contacting ISWAN’s helplines regarding psychological wellbeing concerns were women, while 75% were men.

Overall, 9% of helpline users identified as women, and 89% as men during the quarter. ISWAN’s helpline data also suggests that women are more likely than men to have experienced abuse at sea, contributing to higher rates of mental health issues among women seafarers.

“There have also been very encouraging steps forward in terms of developing the kinds of leadership culture that will support seafarers’ wellbeing more effectively,” adds Grainge. “However, ISWAN’s helpline data shows that there is still some way to go in terms of ensuring that all seafarers have safe and respectful working environments that are protective of their health and wellbeing.”

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