After several posts about the subject, I thought I would not have to write again about depression at sea. But some maritime charities continue to beat the war drums. They try to paint depression as a scourge on today’s seafarers, something that has to be defeated like ISIL or Al-Qaeda. Promoting mental health amongst those who work at sea is commendable. So what’s wrong with these well-meaning efforts to combat seafarer depression?

The term ‘depression’ is not clearly defined.

There is a tendency to lump depression together with other emotional states such as loneliness and anxiety. At best, this could be misleading. At worst, it could be dangerous as seafarers might underestimate the severity of their mental condition. Certain cases of depression, as I pointed out in a May 2019 article, require psychotherapy or psychotropic medication.

The extent of depression at sea has not been reliably established.

To underscore the problem, maritime charities provide anedotal evidence from their own members or from seafarers themselves. They may cite some poll or study that covered a limited number of respondents. Is this enough? The usual estimate is that there are some 1.6 million seafarers serving on the world merchant fleet. Can the maritime do-gooders say how many, more or less, are suffering from depression?

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.


~ Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’ (1947)


Calls to address the problem are attended by the promotion of  ‘wellness’ training for seafarers.

Training has its place in promoting mental health in the workplace. A report in the British medical journal The Lancet summarised the results of a cluster randomised controlled trial of manager mental health training within a large Australian fire and rescue service. It stated: “In this study, we have shown, for the first time to our knowledge, that a modest investment in mental health training for workplace managers might have measurable benefits.

The key phrase is “workplace managers”. For some maritime charities to propose mental health training for seafarers in general is a case of overzealousness. Can’t they see that seafarers, especially the officers, are suffering from training overload?

The campaigns are self-serving.

It is easy to understand why the maritime do-gooders are harping on seafarer mental health with such passion. They need to highlight their work and encourage donors to give more. There’s also money to be made from mental health training programmes. If and when the COVID-19 pandemic blows over, we can count on the charities to find another cause to drum up. Like other players on the maritime stage, they, too, have to make a living.

This is not to devalue maritime charity. In an exploitative shipping world, heaven knows that we need more empathy and compassion towards the men and women who toil at sea. By all means, let us help them gain better mental and emotional health. But let us not for a moment forget that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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