The pandemic has had all sorts of effects on shipping, few of them good.

But one positive aspect has been an increasing awareness of the need for mental health care for crew. For some seafarers, that has been a life saver.

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This story is part of the upcoming edition of the TW+ magazine, which unpicks the changes that have occurred over the past 20 months as a result of Covid-19, investigates how shipping is still being reshaped and tries to find out what the permanent effects may be.

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Although the need for mental health services was starting to be recognised, there has been an upsurge since the pandemic. Examples can be found in the most unexpected places.

Protection and indemnity insurers such as the UK P&I Club are now providing mindfulness exercises and mental health care advice among their more routine loss-prevention material.

The growth of mental health care can be traced back to the first lockdowns in March 2020. There was a lot of talk about the stresses and strains that isolation would put on people who were confined to their homes.

But in shipping circles, it soon became apparent that a much more serious problem was emerging for hundreds of thousands of seafarers who were trapped at sea, unable to return home because of travel restrictions.

Isolation and emotional and mental stresses have often been involved in working at sea. Covid brought added uncertainties and concerns about family back home.

Leading shipowners have also begun to take mental health more seriously.

BW Group insurance general manager Patrick Kirkman explained to the International Union of Marine Insurance conference in September how his company is improving the onboard working environment to support the mental health and morale of seafarers.

This holistic approach includes a wide range of factors, from decor, food and anti-bullying policies to respect for faith, connectivity and creating an onboard sense of community. “You’ve got to have a supportive culture,” Kirkman says.

Charles Watkins. Photo: Sascha Niethammer

BW Group has also attempted to remove the stigma attached to such problems by guaranteeing employment to those who seek help for mental health concerns. “Crew need to know that if they come forward with a mental health issue ... they will not lose their job because of it,” he adds.

But the industry still has a long way to go.

The issue is growing in wider society too. The World Health Organization, Kirkman points out, has indicated that mental health will be a leading cause of death by 2030.

Quoting former US President Barack Obama, he says: “Things are better, but still not good enough.”

P&I insurer Steamship Mutual responded to the crew crisis by providing online, multilingual, mental health support to its members by qualified psychologists through Mental Health Support Solutions (MHSS). The service had already been used by Steamship member Columbia Shipmanagement.

“We recognised that Covid has imposed restrictions on all our lives, and that has generated stresses and anxieties, but for those at sea it has been magnified,” says Steamship head of loss prevention Chris Adams.

“It was done to provide real support and assistance to help seafarers to cope, but also as a way of adding value to shipowners' membership of Steamship Mutual.”

MHSS chief executive Christian Ayerst says it became clear that although seafarers were able to call for medical advice while at sea, there was no mental health support. He sees that as a glaring gap in crew welfare provision.

Christian Ayerst Photo: Sascha Niethammer

“Today nobody goes to sea without access to radio medical advice, and for the same reason nobody should go to sea without access to a qualified psychologist,” he says.

MHSS founder Charles Watkins believes there has been an unwillingness to recognise mental health issues in the industry.

“It’s been overlooked for a long time,” he says. “The incidences that have happened have been ignored, or just silenced. I think the pandemic has brought up something that has always been there, but with higher frequency and more urgency.”

Other services, such as the Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea, are aimed at educating seafarers in coping with the stress of working at sea. The International Seafarers’ Welfare & Assistance Network’s SeafarerHelp service is another confidential 24/7 helpline that any mariner can access.

MHSS has seen a range of problems during the crisis. Some people might just need the chance to talk through their feelings.

Watkins says: “Very often they feel better after they have talked to us. I don’t think it makes the situation better, but it does help them deal with it, it gives them emotional relief, and that is a lot for them in that moment.”

But there are also critical cases in which people need more than just someone to talk to. Often these can be diagnosed only by trained psychologists who can spot serious problems based on phone calls.

“There are a lot of cases where you need to understand these cases are severe. They should be looked at by a professional that understands how to do an assessment to ask the important questions to make sure that person is safe and gets the best help possible,” Watkins says.

MHSS claims to have prevented medium- or long-term psychological harm in 40 cases, and there is no sign the problem is easing. Between March and June this year, calls to its crisis support line increased by 60%.

Adams believes that, in the most critical cases, the service has saved lives. Steamship will keep the service and develop it further when the pandemic is over.

“This is not a quick fix or a short-term measure,” he says. “We see the value of this as a long-term proposition, because there has been very positive feedback from the shipowners that have used the services of Charles and his team.

“There have been several instances where lives were at risk and their intervention has turned things around.”