The global seafarer community is in the throes of a mental health crisis, according to a newly released study.
The Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI), published Wednesday, says there are significant risks to the mental and physical well-being of ship personnel and a growing risk to vessel safety as crew change restrictions have remained in place while the coronavirus pandemic rages on.
The Mission to Seafarers, which published the SHI, said its survey “shows the continuing decline of happiness at sea, largely due to the inability of seafarers to sign off and return home.”
The Mission to Seafarers said it works in more than 200 ports in 50 countries to provide “help and support to the 1.5 million men and women who face danger every day to keep our global economy afloat.”
The organization, in association with liability insurer Shipowners’ Club and maritime solutions provider Wallem Group, compiled the report using a survey of seafarers conducted between April and June. According to the SHI, seafarer happiness dropped from 6.3 on a 10-point scale in the first quarter of the year to 6.18 in the second quarter.
“We are in the midst of a welfare crisis,” said Andrew Wright, secretary-general of The Mission to Seafarers. “While Q1 shows us how seafarers suffered as COVID-19 struck home and provided insight into the support that was needed, the Q2 report highlights the cost of inaction and the need for immediate solutions.
“It is paramount that we see progress with crew changeovers, onboard [personal protective equipment] and improved communication between shore and sea to defuse this ticking time bomb. Protecting seafarers is a priority and governments must now come together and work with industry before it is too late,” Wright said.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) also has been urging governments to come together. Earlier this month IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim called for member states to sign a pledge to help get stranded seafarers repatriated.
Thirteen countries initially signed a joint statement that called for designating seafarers as key workers around the world; accepting their identification documents as evidence of that status; implementing industry-approved protocols for ensuring safe ship crew changes; reviewing national quarantine restrictions; and increasing access as quickly as possible to commercial flights to and from the principal countries of origin of seafarers.
The IMO said more than 200,000 seafarers have spent months beyond their contracts stuck on ships because of travel restrictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
The situation has pushed crews to “a tipping point,” The Mission to Seafarers said, “and it is essential that faster progress is made to protect seafarers and stop the industry from falling into a deeper crisis.”
The SHI executive summary said an overriding theme found in the survey is that “the uncertainty facing crews is taking a terrible toll. There is a sense of constant dread and even paranoia creeping in.”
Desperation has led to what the report called “worrying trends.”
“Problems of sexism, racism and bullying appear to be on the rise. We also received a number of responses voicing concerns about drunkenness on board vessels. It seems that in lockdown the stress may have [caused] some crew [to] turn to alcohol, which is a very worrying development,” the SHI said.
The report said there also is evidence of growing tension among seafarers of different nationalities. “Multiple respondents from Asia, the Middle East and Indian Subcontinent felt that they were being underpaid compared to those from other regions,” it said.
Seafarers from the Indian Subcontinent made up 37% of survey respondents and their average happiness score was 6.35.
“The happiest seafarers by far were from Oceania and South America. They scored in excess of 8, which is far higher than we have come to expect from any groups usually. From the written responses it seems they may not have been as exposed to crew travel and changeover problems as others,” the SHI said.
Notably, Seafarers from Oceania and South America made up only 2% of the survey respondents.
In addition to the absence of shore leaves and crew changes, seafarers are further stressed on board ships by increased workloads and constant disinfecting to stave off the spread of the coronavirus, according to the SHI.
“Morale has plummeted due to this pandemic,” said one respondent.