Mental Health: Skills to Cope

27 March 2019 By Laura Dunn

Practicing or regaining good mental health is crucial. However, some circumstances specific to yachting can be problematic, such as confined spaces, sleep deprivation, living and working with the same people, lack of privacy, being away from home for extended periods, and lack of downtime.

First, says Karine Rayson, director at The Crew Coach, our mental health issues don’t define us as individuals. “Due to the stereotypes around mental health, to this day, there is still a lot of shame and stigma associated with mental health conditions, which can lead to people suffering in silence and even suiciding,” she says.

One way to manage is to learn distress tolerance skills, which are distraction techniques that help with regulating emotions. Some of these techniques include practicing mindfulness, meditation, and engaging in healthy activities — whether it is doing yoga, reading, journaling, or exercising.

Rayson also recommends practicing self-compassion. “This means reaching out to your positive support network, challenging your negative thinking, replacing negative thoughts with healthier ones, learning to set healthy boundaries, and engaging in acts of self-care such as taking time off work or going for counseling,” she says, adding that the first step is to acknowledge that you’re struggling and need support.

It’s also important that we don’t avoid triggers. “Understand and work through them, with or without the help of your friends and family, counselors, and health care professionals, and face your demons head on,” says Robert L. Quigley, MD, D.Phil, senior vice president and regional medical director assistance for MedAire & International SOS Americas.

The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. “This all sounds very positive and some would say an overly ‘rosy’ and unrealistic picture of mental health,” says Julia Matheson, senior consultant for Impact Crew. “Most people’s lives are, in reality, a lot more up and down than this, but this doesn’t mean we are mentally unwell. It is normal to experience emotions such as sadness and anger; it’s all part of being human.”

Matheson, an experienced coach, educator, and facilitator who designs and delivers coaching initiatives for captains and senior leaders in the maritime industry, is also a mental health nurse. She notes that when we are mentally healthy, we have the resilience to pick ourselves up when we’re down and to cope well, all while contributing to our family, community, and working world. “It’s more about finding a balance and harmony with the different elements and emotions in our lives,” she says.

So, when does it become a problem? “We tend to become more vulnerable to mental [illness] when there is excessive pressure in different aspects of our lives and negative feelings get out of kilter, out of balance, and begin to eclipse the positives in a pervasive and enduring way,” Matheson explains.

You should be able to talk about mental illness and health. “Captains and leaders need to take responsibility for creating a culture that values the mental health of crew as much as the physical health,” Matheson urges, adding that those in leadership need to deal with the triggers, such as harassment, stress, overwork, fatigue, all while ensuring that all crew are treated fairly.

Education and self-awareness are good weapons against this. These are two very important aspects of destigmatization, as well as being able to talk openly. For example, when the captain is debriefing the crew, they should “just assume that everyone has got a mental illness” and talk openly about it, says Quigley. More importantly, the captain should encourage crew to talk to each other since they are more likely to share with peers. “Make it more of a collaborative, congenial atmosphere,” says Quigley.

It can’t be stressed enough that it’s the captain’s job to ensure that the crew has adequate sleep time, downtime, exercise, and diet. Captains also need to ensure that they have a medical emergency response plan in place, says Quigley. “That means that at every port of call, he or she needs to know what are the facilities that are there, and do those facilities have the capacity to support somebody with an acute mental illness problem,” he says. If they don’t, they should at least know what to do to get victims into good hands.

That’s part of the captain and owner’s duty of care and obligation to support their crew, says Dr. Quigley. “It’s a moral issue, it’s an ethical issue, it’s a fiduciary issue, and in some countries, it’s a legal issue to the point where it’s part of the criminal code.” In yachting, he says, there needs to be awareness, a support structure in place, and preventative measures.

If you need professional help, reach out. MedAire’s emotional support services are included for their medical support program clients. They also work with Workplace Options, which can engage in real-time when clients need enhanced emotional support services. “This enhanced service can extend beyond the crew to include the captains and … management companies, as well as the crewmembers and the guests,” says Victoria Carnivale, MBA, business development and sales manager, Luxury Yachting, Americas and the Caribbean for MedAire.

Nautilus International is also a great resource. Danny McGowan, international organizer for Nautilus, says they operate a 24/7 contact center. Members can get in touch over Skype, live chat, email, or phone. McGowan advises crew to reach out at the earliest possible opportunity if they need assistance. “They should never feel like they are alone as they are part of a much bigger community.”