The Slippery Slope – recognizing the signs of depression

2 December 2010 By Kelly Sanford

Few captains have any formal training in Human Resource Management, yet managing a crew is complex and often requires that elusive set of skills that can make or break the captain. Among the laundry list of items falling under the greater umbrella of Human Resource Management is the complicated issue of the crewmembers' emotional wellbeing. Because members of the crew both live and work together, the emotional state of each crewmember is inextricably woven into the overall fabric of the group. When a valued crewmember starts showing signs of a diminished emotional state, causing them to disengage from their job and/or the rest of the crew, most captains immediately understand that the entire canvas is at risk of coming apart at the seams. However, few captains have formal training on how to prevent this from happening.

“The signs of emotional distress are something every captain should take the time to learn,” says Psychologist Dr. Michelle Sukenik. There are some obvious signs of sliding emotional health such as: erratic behavior, mood swings, inappropriate anger, an inability to control anger or sadness, obsessive behaviors and talking about causing harm to one’s self or others. However, long before the blatant symptoms surface, there are more subtle clues that often go overlooked until the affected person reaches a tipping point.

The more subtle, early warning signs of an emotionally compromised person are perhaps the most important to recognize because early action may prevent a catastrophic escalation. These subtle clues include:

*Changes in sleeping patterns, which can be sleeping more or less than usual

* Noticeable changes in weight or eating habits, which can be a sudden weight gain and increased appetite or a sudden weight loss and loss of appetite

* Sudden unexplained physical symptoms, which can range from stomach aches to persistent minor infections to hair-loss

* Increased use of drugs or increased consumption of alcohol

* A pervasive lack of energy and interest

* Becoming easily confused or having trouble remembering things

* Social withdrawal

* Erratic swings in mood - often noticed by others (Don’t automatically dismiss complaints from fellow crew)

Dr. Sukenik says that once a person begins showing the chronic, obvious signs of emotional distress, it is probably too late for the crew to intervene and the depressed person should be allowed and encouraged to seek professional treatment. “Sometimes there is a physiological cause, and it is the job of a professional to determine the cause of the emotional decline,” she says. “However, in the early stages, there are steps a captain can take to bring a struggling member of the crew back into the fold before the symptoms progress.”

At the earliest sign of changes, the captain should sit with the crewmember in a non-threatening situation, for example the captain could ask the crewmember to accompany him/her on an errand or schedule a watch with the crewmember. “Tell the crewmember s/he is a valued member of the crew and that you have noticed some changes that have concerned you,” suggests Dr. Sukenik. “Listen to the crewmember and offer non-threatening suggestions to help him/her. You would be surprised how often the simple act of telling a person that they are of value to you and that you care about them is enough to turn them around. If the crewmember does not confide in you and the situation does not improve, it is important that you make clinical help available. If the situation is serious, you must be prepared to let that person leave in order to get help and, in their best interest, allow him/her to leave feeling validated. It is obvious that the unusual and constant demands of working on a boat are not for everyone.”

Dr. Sukenik is emphatic that if a mental health situation is serious or alarming in nature, call EMS and contact an emergency hotline. Numbers for regional crisis hotlines and local EMS should always be posted in a prominent place where they are readily available in an urgent situation.

Look for a more comprehensive article on Crew in Crisis with Dr. Sukenik later this year in Dockwalk magazine.