Seafarers are suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety. Theirs is a tough, lonely job — conditions that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Suicide rates among seafarers are higher than some national averages, but according to one psychologist who works with them, it is not the job that drives them over the edge.

Dr Deepti Mankad, who heads the Mumbai-based counselling consultancy Mind Speak, said that in her experience, work-related matters did not the cause the majority of seafarer suicides.

"I can only comment from my own experience, but most of the time there have been relationship issues for which seafarers have either attempted or committed suicide. Very few have been work-related," she said at a Tristar Tankers-organised wellness and safety conference held in December.

Shell's seafarer well-being programme coordinator Cerian Mellor, who was speaking at the same conference, highlighted that the mental health problems experienced by seafarers did not begin with Covid-19.

"Pre-pandemic we had already recognised that mental health and well-being was a fundamental part of seafarers feeling safe and thriving at work," Mellor explained.

Mankad, who is also a regional coordinator for wellness at the Sailors' Society, said the problem stretched back decades but only surfaced when incidents at sea started being reported.

"Seafarers were very isolated and nothing was discussed," she said.

"People ashore are not aware of what kind of work seafarers do and what kind of stress they go through."

It took a global pandemic for the mental well-being issues that seafarers face to really hit home.

"Anxiety has been much higher in the past couple of years as compared to depression," Mankad explained.

A recent Yale University report identified that as many as 25% of seafarers suffer from depression.

Problems ashore and afloat

Dr Deepti Mankad is a psychologist specialising in issues faced by seafarers. Photo: Mind Speak

Anxiety in seafarers is frequently a result of stress that arises out of uncertainty and feeling completely powerless as a result.

"Seafarers experience emotional and psychological distress when they feel unsure, or when things are unpredictable. Certainty is, after all, a key foundation of the triangle of human needs," Mellor explained.

While anxiety is a normal part of life, over a prolonged period it can and does lead to serious anxiety disorders which, if left unchecked, progress on to full-blown depression.

"As the pandemic took hold, statistics from maritime charities demonstrated that there was a huge increase in seafarers reaching out for help," Mellor noted.

According to Mankad, the main cause of anxiety for seafarers during the pandemic period has stemmed from being stuck on board a ship and not knowing what to do and what was going to happen.

Other seafarer welfare organisations have reported in recent months that crew members who have been on board for prolonged periods because of the crew-change crisis are facing increasing stress from family issues back home for which they are powerless to do anything about.

At the same time, Mankad noted that seafarers marooned ashore were unable to get back on board and start earning any income, which led to serious financial issues.

"Their anxiety was at another level altogether," she said.