The needs of crews’ mental health and physical health are not being met during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to findings from the LR survey.

Many crew members responding to the survey said there is little support provided by their companies for mental health.

Half of the seafarers surveyed said that neither a counsellor nor a welfare officer is available to provide professional advice and support. The disparity was more obvious among shore staff, with 68% saying that there was nobody they could turn to.

The pandemic’s effects on seafarers’ mental health were highlighted when some of cruise ship Diamond Princess’ crew members reportedly took to the Internet to vent their frustrations.

Diamond Princess, one of the many cruise ships to be affected by the pandemic, was quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, from 5 to 19 February 2020, because a former passenger had tested positive for COVID-19.

By the time the quarantine ended, there were 621 infections among the more than 3,700 passengers and crew, which dominated both the trade and mainstream press. Three of the passengers, all elderly persons with underlying health conditions, died.

However, the Japanese government obliged the 1,000 or so crew members to undergo a 14-day quarantine, as they worked while the passengers were confined to their cabins, in order to keep the ship running. 

A spokesperson for Princess Cruises, which operates the stricken ship, told LR that the company acted to provide emotional support to the quarantined crew.

The spokesperson said, “We activated a wide variety of services, including dedicated communication channels for the Diamond Princess crew to communicate directly with shoreside leaders 24 hours per day. The crew also had phone and video chats with counsellors as well as spiritual and faith-based resources available 24 hours per day to provide comfort and support in seven languages.”

For those that do have access to mental health support, seafarers reported a low uptake due to the stigmatism of mental health and fears of losing their jobs.

UK Chamber of Shipping’s policy director (employment and legal) Tim Springett said, “It’s necessary to alleviate stigma and encourage those to understand what is meant by mental health. Much like everyone has physical health, we all have mental health. Companies can integrate mental health policies and encourage training that alleviate stigma and increase awareness in a top-down approach.”

The chamber published guidance in 2018 on this matter in joint agreement with Nautilus International and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Further to this publication, the Chamber plans to publish a follow-up practical guidance for shipping companies on improving mental wellbeing in early 2021.

Charities have stepped in where companies fell short.

Mission to Seafarers’ director of advocacy, Ben Bailey, told LR that his organisation is the only port-welfare organisation to continue ship visits amid the pandemic, stopping only if obliged by national lockdowns or port restrictions.

He said, “Where possible, companies should be permitting chaplains to safely visit ships so that crews have someone impartial to share any concerns. Seafarers have told us how invaluable it is to have someone they can talk to, particularly during these difficult days.”