Seafarers face a floating prison while out at sea

Mental health crisis.

The threat of declining mental health amid the current pandemic is taking a toll on seafarers.

By Zaf Anwar, Malaysia correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

Seafarers are on the edge of serious mental distress, being away from their loved ones and uncertain of when they will be able to return home. Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit Malaysian shores, many seafarers are being confined to their vessels for months on end, sometimes even up to a year.

With such restricted movements, the constant workload, and with no shore leave or crew change being allowed, seafarers have reported feeling stressed and seeing an increased risk of accidents while on the job.

The Malaysian Maritime Professional Association Council (IKMAL) honorary secretary Ahmad Badri Alwi said Malaysian seafarers has been greatly impacted since the outbreak, and have had no access to a mental healthcare professional, let alone basic medical care.  Also, to make matters worse, seafarers are not allowed to go on shore leave, and with many not being able to return home even after their contracts had ended.

Ahmad Badri Alwi, honorary secretary, Malaysian Maritime Professional Association Council.

“Nobody is allowed to go on shore leave at all. When vessels arrive at a port, seafarers are forced to lock up in their rooms to minimize contact with other personnel who come on board for checks.

“Most of the time, they are not even allowed to go to a clinic, or get someone to buy a local SIM card for them to get in contact with their families,” he told Maritime Fairtrade in an interview.

He said since early 2020, no country allows for shore leave, thereby forcing seafarers to be stuck on their ships, and with no interaction with offshore personnel.  Many of them working in smaller vessels also have poor living conditions, he said, adding that seafarers lack personal space or a proper area to get some exercise.

“Bigger vessels or tankers are equipped with internet access, a comfortable galley and mess room. Some even have a gymnasium, big televisions, and lounges for seafarers to relax.  But those seafarers on smaller vessels face more restrictions, trap without entertainment and not even TV coverage while out at sea.”

Experiencing separation anxiety

Ahmad Badri said many seafarers who need to sign on during the pandemic also experience separation anxiety, knowing that they will not be able to see their families for long periods of time once they board their ships.

He explained that typically, a seafarer will leave for between three and nine months, but because of the virus, seafarers now see themselves with extended contracts and no certainty of when they will be able to return home.

Providing help to both seafarers and their families is vital

To help seafarers keep mentally well while out at sea, Ahmad Badri stressed the importance of maintaining good communication on board.  He said the master or other senior officers on the ship must also be in constant contact with their office to get support.

“During the Covid-19 period, IKMAL has conducted webinars in collaboration with other non-governmental organizations to discuss mental health.  We also collaborated with the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry to provide a helpline for the families of seafarers, who may also face stress from the separation.”

It is also vital, he added, to equip the crewing department of a shipping company with basic mental health first aid training.  This can enable those on land to act as a support system for their staff, giving those at sea an opportunity to speak out on any issues or problems they may face.

“However, unfortunately, seafarers are not officially recognized as key workers in Malaysia.  Without official recognition, any new announcement on standard operating procedures will only treat seafarers as normal workers.

“This will not help to ensure a smooth sign on or sign off process, make it hard for them to travel back home, and even to get proper medical assistance.”

A mental health crisis in happening now

In 2020, The Seafarers Happiness Index revealed that a seafarer welfare crisis was at a tipping point, proving that Covid-19 has had a noticeable impact on the community. The survey has shown that seafarers are in the midst of a “mental health crisis”, with a continuing decline of happiness at sea.

This, the report said, is largely due to the inability of seafarers to sign off and return home, with the added burden of virus fears and heavy workloads.  In Q1 this year, the 2021 index improved slightly, with the happiness level average score of seafarers rising from 6.37 in Q4 2020 to 6.46.

“However, numbers still fell into the ‘passive zone’, with a sense of watching and waiting for the real sense of whether crew changes will be improved,” the report said.  Thirty-seven of the respondents to the 2021 survey, conducted by The Mission to Seafarers, were from the South East Asian region.

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Zaf Anwar

Zaf Anwar

Zaf Anwar is a Malaysia-based writer who loves to break down complex issues into bite-size information that is easy to digest. Having worked with both mainstream and alternative media in Malaysia, Zaf places her hope for a freer and more independent journalism in the region.

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