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Mental Health Awareness: How Does Yachting Fare?

15 October 2021By Lauren Beck
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Written by

Lauren Beck

Editor Lauren Beck has been with Dockwalk since 2006. At 13, she left South Africa aboard a 34-foot sailing boat with her family and ended up in St. Maarten for six years. Before college, she worked as crew for a year, and then cut her journalistic teeth at Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies’ Home Journal online. She loves traveling, reading, tennis, and rooting for the Boston Red Sox. Email her at lauren@dockwalk.com.

October 10 was Mental Health Awareness Day, so it’s a good reminder to check in on your own mental health and your teammate’s. After a grueling 18 months under COVID-19 restrictions, there’s no shame in needing help.

MedAire — which also provides a 24/7 confidential emotional support service for member vessels — shares that they have seen a large increase in yachting cases related to mental health as a result of the pandemic — a 131 percent increase from 2019 to 2020. “Of all the mental health cases we have seen since the pandemic began, 37 percent were between December 2020 and March 2021, which shows the general fatigue people were feeling after a year of continued lockdowns and restrictions,” says Brent Palmer, Director of Education, MedAire. The numbers since then have slightly declined, presumably since restrictions have eased. “Despite this, mental health cases are often under-reported, as symptoms can often manifest themselves in physical ways and so may be recorded in other ways,” Hill says.

Mental Health Perception in Yachting

MedAire believes the stigma around mental health has reduced globally, in part due to increased awareness. Vessels these days are trying to make changes and deploy strategies to handle these issues more appropriately. “At MedAire, we have seen increasing numbers of vessels add emotional support to their subscription,” Palmer says. “This support has assisted crewmembers in maintaining their post and increasing their ability to continue performing their duties successfully.”

Chef Emma Ross is a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and co-founder and director of Seas the Mind. A 15-year industry veteran, she works on rotation and runs Seas the Mind ashore, which offers Mental Health First Aid training to crew through the Kelly’s Cause Foundation. As Ross says, the current state of mental health awareness in yachting is “an inconvenient truth that needs to be addressed.” While we take for granted the need for first-aid training, Ross points out that “we are much more likely to meet someone needing help with anxiety, grief, loneliness, eating disorders, alcohol and drug dependency on a yacht than we are a stroke victim, so why aren’t we fortifying our training to protect ourselves and others?”

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As someone relatively new to the industry, Georgia Allen, project manager at the International Seafarers’ Welfare & Assistance Network (ISWAN), believes that the yachting industry is in a “state of transition when it comes to mental health awareness.” As she points out, some are ahead of the curve while others are behind. “The sector is such a traditional one in many ways, with much history, hierarchy, and tradition,” Allen says. “It can be difficult for those who are embedded in these traditions to open up to new ways of doing things and talking about things.” But, Allen says, her experience has been positive, and she’s thrilled to have people reach out to her, including a captain recently who wanted to enroll his entire crew in ISWAN’s Maritime Mental Health Awareness training. “There is a misconception I think sometimes that only ‘young’ or ‘unconventional’ people are interested in talking/learning about mental health, but this couldn’t be further than the truth,” she says. “There are plenty of people in leadership roles, or from older generations, who see the importance of making these changes in the industry too.” ISWAN also runs Yacht Crew Help, a 24/7/365 confidential helpline.

“There are plenty of people in leadership roles, or from older generations, who see the importance of making these changes in the industry too.”

The UK’s Quay Crew just recently partnered with Mental Health Support Solutions (MHSS), which offers clinical psychologists who specialize in supporting seafarers. All crew placed by Quay Crew will have access to MHSS’s 24/7 helpline. As a crew agency staffed by former crew, the team has more than 30 years of experience in yachting and they have first-hand experience with crew mental health. “Speaking to captains, HODs, and crewmembers every single week, it appears to be an issue that is only increasing, sometimes with tragic consequences,” says Tim Clarke, director of Quay Crew. “Awareness of what constitutes a mental health concern is definitely on the rise, which can only be a good thing, but more needs to be done to support people who feel they need help to cope or work through issues. As an industry, I think we need to be taking more preventative measures.”

Does Yachting Exacerbate These Issues?

We all know well that working as crew is stressful, no matter how much you love your job or how well you get along with your crewmates. “We have strenuous conditions that we have to work under, close quarters, isolation from friends and family, long hours, and we do it because we want to and we understand it’s a part of our job requirements,” Ross says.

And most times, yachts aren’t necessarily set up to be able to help. “Unlike in the corporate world, vessels won’t have a dedicated HR department and so it can sometimes be difficult for crew to know who to talk to during difficult times,” Palmer says.

Mental health struggles are not unique to yachting. All jobs can contribute to stress, but as Clarke acknowledges, “The job itself lends itself to a specific type of person, perhaps more glass-half full and who can work out a way to deal with the potential isolation and fatigue that comes with being a crewmember.” While the battle is common, “What doesn’t help, though, is that we are lagging way behind compared to land-based corporates who are providing employees with training, resources, and support,” he says. That and anecdotal evidence also suggests that alcohol and drug misuse, which can be an issue in the crew community, can be a factor. (To identify more of the underlying issues, Quay Crew is also currently conducting a mental health survey.)

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Allen agrees that the industry has unique challenges, but she has a different take on where the problem lies — when those in “positions of power start using this as a ‘get out of jail free card’ for not making changes.” She acknowledges that yachting is demanding. “But I think taking the stance that the issues are part and parcel of working in the industry risks playing into the narrative that mental health and mental health problems are only the domain of the weak,” she says. “We need to get away from this idea that only some people have mental health, and that any conversation concerning such should be reserved for those other people.”

As Allen explains, every person’s mental health status is on a continuum. “We all fall within different stages of this at any given time in our lives,” she says. She believes it’s the industry’s responsibility to work to change “attitudes, approaches, cultures, policies, and ‘ways of doing things’ for the better so that mental health ‘issues’ are not so triggered by the ‘norms’ of the industry because they cease to be that norm.” Of course, this won’t miraculously fix all issues, but hopefully increased awareness, support, and channels of communication will be available.

What Needs to be Improved

While things are improving, we need to do more. As Ross says, “As we accept we have to learn firefighting, sea survival, and first aid to make us better qualified to survive our jobs that take us into dangerous conditions, shouldn’t we also be giving crewmembers the tools to help themselves and others for all the inevitable issues that arise from close quarters, isolation from friends and family, long hours?”

“Owners, management companies, captains, and HODs need to take mental health support extremely seriously,” he says. 

Ross stresses that preventative training is important. It’s also vital to check in with people — yacht managers with their boats, captains and heads of departments with their teams to provide “top down accountability for crew mental health, same as we currently have for our physical health,” she says.

Clarke has similar advice. “Owners, management companies, captains, and HODs need to take mental health support extremely seriously,” he says. “Compared to the operating costs of a yacht, the provision of such services and training is extremely affordable.” As he explains, this ensures help is available when needed, but it would also demonstrate to crew that their employers care. “In the long term, it will help longevity and productivity on board and make it acceptable to open a dialogue about mental health, which is probably one of the biggest stigmas right now.”

While MedAire says mental health awareness is generally improving in yachting, “there remains work to be done to help crews continue developing their empathy, as unless you have lived that person’s experience it can be sometimes difficult for others to relate — this is where developing your emotional intelligence becomes such an important skill, helping you to better manage your onboard relationships and grow your empathy.” As others have noted, MedAire also believes there is a lot we can take from the corporate world, including training crew in mental health first aid to help identify concerning behavior or traits and possibly intervene if the risk is high.

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Getting Help

There are options in the industry if you need help. “Reaching out for this is a difficult first step, because you are placing yourself in an emotionally vulnerable position, but once you do so, the realization that you are taking control of your own wellbeing and health is often liberating,” Allen says. She offers up a few words of caution — protect yourself when asking for help and be careful who you choose to confide in. “Sometimes hearing the wrong response when you are feeling particularly vulnerable can be even more damaging than it would if you were in a better frame of mind,” she says.

“Firstly, it's absolutely and completely okay to need help,” says Clinical Psychologist Anna Wucher of MHSS. “It doesn’t make you weak, mentally ill, crazy, or any less valuable as a person. It just means you are human and quite normal.” As Wucher explains, getting help doesn’t automatically mean you’re in for months of counseling or even a clinical diagnosis, but it can help to clarify whatever is causing you stress and help you find solutions to deal with your challenges. “It really is just accepting that all of us have limits in knowledge and skills and that someone else is available and capable to help us learn those skills and support us through a difficult phase. You cannot know what you were never taught, so asking for help can also just be learning a new set of skills to take care of yourself,” she says.

“It doesn’t make you weak, mentally ill, crazy, or any less valuable as a person. It just means you are human and quite normal.”

It’s a good starting point to confide in someone you trust or to reach out to a support service, and even the smallest step in asking for help can improve how you feel.

Joanna Drysdale of MHG Insurance, which works with ISWAN, suggests that a Professional Yachting Association (PYA) membership can help with the stresses of navigating contracts, wage issues, career issues, or even harassment problems on board. She also encourages crew to ask what provisions the boat has for crew welfare — for example, some yachts have telemedicine subscriptions that may have a confidential emotional support helpline, like those available through MedAire. Your health insurance may also include outpatient mental health treatment options.

We can all benefit from support, Palmer says, and learning about your stressors, triggers, and healthy ways to cope and manage responses. “When a person is managing and prioritizing their mental health, they are better-equipped to handle stress, job duties, and an increased awareness of how to improve their work-life balance,” he says. We all have a breaking point, no matter how strong we may be. “We all need an outlet to vent our problems and you should feel no shame in needing that.”

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How to Learn More About Mental Health

If you’re interested in learning more about mental health to be able to help both yourself and others, there are many ways to go about it, including taking courses to get trained in mental health first aid.

“It is incredibly important to prioritize yourself above all others,” says Wucher of MHSS. “It’s very noble and can be very rewarding to help others, but make sure that you are doing well and taking care of yourself first.”

Chef Ross urges people to normalize talking about mental health, which can go far to remove the stigma that could prevent people from reaching out for help. “Most importantly, good mental health starts with you!” she says.

“It’s very noble and can be very rewarding to help others, but make sure that you are doing well and taking care of yourself first.”

Wucher notes that even simply taking the time to listen helps, even if you’re not professionally trained in mental health assessment and treatment. “Actively engaging someone and listening to them can be extremely powerful. Helping someone does not have to involve you finding a solution for them. Rather, ask what you can do to support them, and listen to what they say,” she says. She would also encourage those interested to engage with people who have experience in the mental health field. Support groups, buddy programs, mentors, professionals, and online courses are all good. “However, speaking to someone, interacting with an individual or a group, will be much more enlightening and interesting than completing a theoretical online course,” she says.

Allen encourages those interested in learning more to get out there and explore the options. She advocates for mental health awareness training, which ISWAN offers. Their Maritime Mental Health Awareness training is open to both individuals and small groups. She also suggests reading up on the subject, including Samaritans’ book How to Listen. (Samaritans works to prevent suicide and to help those who have lost people to suicide.)

Allen also recommends volunteering for a charity and learning “helping skills,” plus, if possible, investing in personal therapy. “There is a common misconception that therapy is only for those who are in personal crises, but actually I am of the viewpoint that everyone should have therapy at least once in their lives because it is a route to true self-awareness,” Allen says. “In order to help others effectively, it is important to be in tune with and understand/accept your own personal self first — and therapy or mindfulness can really help with that journey.”

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