Yale Study Links High Levels of Depression, Anxiety and Suicidal Thoughts Among Seafarers

ship navigation bridge
Photo: d13 / Shutterstock

Nobody said that life at sea was supposed to be easy, but a new study by Yale University has identified worrying levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among seafarers.

Commissioned by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust charity, the study is said to be the most authoritative and comprehensive survey of the state of seafarers’ mental health to date. It drew on a sample of more than 1,500 seafarers of different ranks, nationalities, vessel types, and flag states.

What the survey revealed was that a quarter of respondents had suffered depression, 17 percent had experienced anxiety and 20 percent had contemplated suicide or self-harm in just the previous two weeks from taking the study.

It also revealed for the first time a link between depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and a greater likelihood of injury and illness on board. Factors cited included lack of adequate training, an uncaring work environment, low job satisfaction, and existing medical conditions.

Significantly, the study also linked violence and bullying as contributing to poor mental health. Of note, seafarers from the Philippines and Eastern Europe were four times as likely to report having experienced or witnessed violence as those from Western Europe.

While the results of the study are worrying, the good news is that with proper support the mental health issues identified in the study are for the most part treatable.

“The more we talk about mental health, the more we reduce the stigma associated with it,” said Dave Heindel, Chair of the Seafarers’ Trust. “This report really helps us to understand the contributing factors and provides a basis for demanding some fundamental changes in the way the shipping industry operates.”

The study’s lead author, Dr Rafael Lefkowitz, personally briefed the ITF Seafarers’ Committee on the findings of the study.

“It was a sobering occasion; the gravity of his team’s discoveries is evident,” said Heindel. “They should be taken as a call to action by everyone in the shipping industry. For our part, the ITF and the representatives of its worldwide maritime union affiliates gathered here today have pledged to share these findings as widely as possible in order to draw attention to this until now hidden problem – as well as to use them to lobby the industry for system changes to the working environment onboard ships.”

To minimize impacts on mental health, the study listed a number of recommendations for maritime training institutes, companies, employers, P&I clubs and trade unions, such as enhanced support, de-stigmatizing mental health issues, and recognizing and addressing the need for interventions to address workplace violence.

“The lives of seafarers are known to be tough. This study shows them to be generally healthy and resilient but subject to massive pressures that are, for the most part, manageable. This issue of violence on board is, however, very disturbing and warrants further investigation,” commented Katie Higginbottom, Head of the Seafarers’ Trust.

The study, Seafarer Mental Health Study 2019, can be found here