Time to address seafarers’ mental health

Awareness and basic knowledge of mental health first aid.

Psychologist Dr Fauziah Mohd Saad emphasizes the importance of being resilient for seafarers amid the current pandemic that is raging around the world.  

By Zaf Anwar, Malaysia correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade

As Covid-19 continues to cause uncertainty and instability the world over, it is unsurprising that more seafarers are experiencing depression, anxiety and stress.  A 2020 study published in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Psychiatry showed a high prevalence of depression, anxiety and general psychiatric disorders among seafarers during Covid-19.

Perceived most of the time as being a more ‘macho’ profession than others, the fact is that being seafarers require more than just physical strength.  Having to spend a fair amount of time away from home and their loved ones in tough and sometimes unforgiving working conditions, it is also important for seafarers to have a strong sense of resilience and purpose.

Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) psychologist and counsellor Dr Fauziah Mohd Saad said it is with resilience that seafarers can be more perceptive to accept the situation at hand, thus will be able to manage their expectations better.

Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris psychologist and counsellor Dr Fauziah Mohd Saad.

“Building resilience means being able to adapt to any situation, be it trauma, stress or any other trigger points.  Acceptance of the Covid-19 situation, for example, will make them understand that all these restrictions and rules are for their own safety and for the safety of those around them,” she said in an interview with Maritime Fairtrade.

She said having a support group aboard their ship to ensure their mental health remains in check is one way to build up resilience, adding that it is vital for seafarers to develop a relationship and maintain good communication with colleagues, who they spend almost all their time with.

Having open and frank talks in safe environment

Dr Fauziah said good relationships and communication will enable seafarers to create a safe space for their comrades to talk about any issues or problems that they may face, making them a pillar of strength for one another.

“On a vessel, seafarers are their own small community. Maintaining good communication is important, especially when they are out at sea and not able to communicate with their family or loved ones at home.”

As colleagues, it is also important for seafarers to have high empathy and a good understanding of mental health problems, she said, and added that having empathy meant that a seafarer must accept and acknowledge when a fellow seafarer is expressing thoughts and emotions.

“We need to listen to the other person and try to put ourselves in their shoes to understand their situation better.  When seafarers have high empathy and have an open mind about the issues their colleagues may face, they will be able to be more supportive of their colleagues and seek the best solution to treat them.” 

Knowing when to sound the alarm

Awareness and basic knowledge of mental health first aid are important for seafarers for them to be able to help themselves and one another, she said, adding that this can empower them to detect unusual behaviors or drastic changes among colleagues – signs that will point to one experiencing mental health problems.

Dr Fauziah said while everyone has their own mechanisms to cope with everyday stress and anxiety, but someone experiencing acute stress, anxiety and depression may need immediate intervention.  She said the danger is when a person dips into a stage of neurosis which can further worsen into a state of psychosis where they may start being out of touch with reality and see, hear or believe things that are not real.

“When someone acts differently or is showing drastic change for two weeks straight, for example, having no appetite, being unkempt, or wanting to be alone more than usual, then this should sound alarm bells.

“A colleague, or supervisor, may request for online counselling sessions to be held to help resolve whatever issue the seafarer may face, before they dive into neurosis or psychosis.  This is why companies should offer basic mental health training to their staff, so they can act quickly, determine trigger points and conduct a necessary intervention.” 

Do not stigmatize mental illness

Dr Fauziah pointed out that mental health awareness is relatively low in Malaysia, with many still stigmatizing this illness.  She said mental health issues are just like any other illnesses such as fever or migraines.

“Sometimes, it can even happen to us because of chemical imbalance. So, just as how we will see a doctor for a fever, we should do the same when we suspect that we have a mental illness.

“Our society needs to understand that a counsellor or psychologist has an ethical duty to keep confidential any and all information from the patient.”

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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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