22 nov 2019

A new study by Yale University has found that within the two weeks prior to completing the survey 25 percent of seafarers had suffered depression, 17 percent had experienced anxiety and 20 percent had contemplated suicide or self-harm.

The Seafarer Mental Health Study, commissioned by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust charity, found a link between depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and a greater likelihood of injury and illness on board. Additionally, 49 percent of seafarers without depression exercised two or more times per week, while 43 percent of seafarers with depression exercised less than once a month.

Incorporating all demographic, occupational, and work environmental factors, final determinants of seafarer depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts included work environmental factors (non-caring company culture, violence at work), job satisfaction and self-rated health (the strongest predictor of anxiety and depression).

The study drew on a sample of 1,572 seafarers who were representative of serving seafarers across the world, of different ranks, on different vessels, with different flags. It identified the following factors as being associated with the feelings of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts:

  •    Lack of adequate training
    •    An uncaring work environment
    •    Exposure to violence or threats of violence
    •    Co-existing medical conditions (including cardiac disease and sleep disorders)
    •    Low job satisfaction
    •    Ill heath

The significance of the link to violence and bullying at work had not been previously drawn so clearly, says the charity. Seafarers from the Philippines and Eastern Europe were four times as likely to report having experienced or witnessed violence as those from Western Europe.

Seafarer depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts were associated with increased likelihood of planning to leave work as a seafarer in the next six months. Periods in work/life cycle associated with high-risk of mental health issues included, most notably, during extension of a voyage.

Katie Higginbottom, Head of the Seafarers’ Trust, commented: “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.”

Having examined the extent of the problems, the study includes a number of recommendations for maritime training institutes, companies, employers, P&I clubs and trade unions, including:

  • Enhance support for cadets, ensure proper training and make improvements to complaints procedures
    • De-stigmatize mental health within company culture
    • Recognize and address the need for interventions to address workplace violence, including by: defining and measuring violence in the seafaring workplace; involving key stakeholders to identify sources and strategies to reduce workplace violence; and by supporting research in intervention evaluation, with dissemination of results to governing bodies, registries, unions and shipping companies.


The study’s authors were Dr. Rafael Y Lefkowitz, MD MPH and Martin D Slade, MPH, from Yale University’s Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program.


The study is available here.

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