Port Wings News Network:
The International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) held a series of events in Mumbai around seafarers’ welfare, particularly mental wellbeing, and the benefits of port welfare committees, recently.
ISWAN brought together an exciting line-up of international speakers for its 2019 Seminar, themed: ‘Working together to protect and promote the mental wellbeing of seafarers’. The chief guest at the seminar (and the workshop the following day) was Brandt Wagner, Head of Transport and Maritime Unit at the International Labour Organization (ILO).
The first session, led by Chair of ISWAN Per Gullestrup, set the scene by looking at the scale of the problem of mental wellbeing at sea. Sophia Bullard, Director of the Crew Health Programme at UK P&I Club, provided a comprehensive overview of industry statistics relating to seafarers’ mental health and discussed the huge financial implications of serious health incidents on board.
She highlighted the constructive measures companies can take, including developing mental health policies and investing in training.
Jason Zuidema, Executive Director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association and General Secretary of the International Christian Maritime Association, discussed the shift in terminology from ‘welfare’ to ‘wellbeing’ over the past few years and pointed out how it has helped bring into focus a crucial need for seafarers – human contact, a central part of a port chaplain or ship visitor’s job. Finally, Dr. Asif Altaf, Wellbeing Coordinator at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), presented the findings of the recent study by Yale University which identified potentially dangerous levels of depression, anxiety and suicide risk among the world’s seafarers. He said that there is plenty of evidence to show seafarers may be more vulnerable to mental health issues than the general population ashore, and there are many opportunities for the industry to make improvements in this area.
Session 2 gave seminar delegates the opportunity to learn from approaches by other sectors to tackle mental health problems amongst their workers. Dr Sujata Naik, Chairperson at Tolani Shipping and Vice Chairperson at INSA, led the session and discussed the parallels between working in medicine and working at sea.
In session 3, speakers addressed how women, young seafarers and other minorities on board are affected by social isolation and what can be done about it. Brandt Wagner of the ILO chaired the session. He introduced the topic and referred to the recent ILO Sectoral Meeting on the Recruitment and Retention of Seafarers and the Promotion of Opportunities for Women Seafarers.
Finally, Dr Malini Shankar, IAS, Former Secretary and Director General of Shipping, Government of India, talked about the issue of cadets and suicide and her experiences of this while in government. Final comments and questions from the floor emphasised the need to ensure there is better support in place for seafarers who may be more vulnerable to social isolation on board.
The final topic for discussion was how members of the maritime industry can work together to find solutions and share best practices for seafarers’ mental wellbeing. Rajesh Tandon, Global Director of V.Group, expanded on what companies can do, discussing the holistic approach taken by V.Ships.
He concluded that ongoing medical examinations would help better support seafarers in addition to the Pre-Employment Medical Examination. He also discussed the importance of developing a focused programme that encourages, supports and monitors seafarers’ physical and psychological health and wellbeing.
Looking at what individual seafarers can do, Capt Nandakumar Kottekal of A. P. Moller Singapore stressed the importance of creating an onboard environment where seafarers feel at home and comfortable. He discussed some recommendations including celebrating birthdays on board, sharing different national dishes and looking out for your fellow crew if you notice they don’t quite seem themselves.
Summing up at the end of the seminar, ISWAN Trustee Michael Pinto reiterated that mental illness is not as easy to see as physical illness, so seafarers and those who work with them need help to be able to identify the early warning signs (more information about ISWAN’s Mental Health Awareness Training for the Maritime Industry can be found here). He emphasised that the shipping industry needs to tackle the sense of shame felt by many about mental illness, and the fear that many seafarers hold of seeking help through employers in case they are penalised. Finally, he pointed out that it takes courage to admit to mental illness or ask for support and suicide is a call for help, so early intervention is crucial to prevent seafarers from reaching this point.