Seafarer Wellbeing: Getting the Most Out of Life at Sea

Posted on 27 June 2018 by Sophie Homer

Mental health is no longer a taboo subject. In recent years, individuals and organisations are realising that mental wellbeing is one of the biggest factors contributing to career success and overall life satisfaction. People who look after their mental health are happier, more successful, and get more out of their social and professional lives. Mental ill-health can stop you working effectively.

Seafaring is no average career. Mariners typically face long working hours and even longer periods away from home, combined with limited or no access to the things most of us take for granted. A recent report by the Sailor’s Society and Yale University revealed that depression is rife among seafarers, with more than a quarter reporting symptoms of depression. Concerningly, many more are likely to experience more general signs of mental ill-health such as low mood, loneliness, isolation, anxiety, or hopelessness.

Given the specific challenges faced by seafarers, what can you do to get the most out of your life at sea?

  1. Keep physically fit

Our physical health has a strong impact on our mental wellbeing, and exercise is a proven way to release positive endorphins and keep us feeling satisfied, motivated, and energised. As a minimum, aim to stretch your muscles regularly, avoid sitting or standing for long periods of time, and do an activity that raises your heart rate for at least 30 minutes per day. Exercise can be difficult when space is limited, but the Training on Board website provides clever tips, challenges, and information about keeping active at sea.

Diet and lifestyle choices are also important components of both physical and mental wellbeing. In particular, drinking alcohol is known to exacerbate signs of mental ill-health and will worsen rather than improve your mood.

  1. Keep doing what makes you happy

Keeping up with hobbies and interests is essential, even if they don’t motivate you as much as they usually do. Aim to have some activities to do alone and some to share with crewmates, and make sure to plan ahead and take the materials you need away with you. If your hobbies are difficult to take off-shore, look forward to picking them up again when you return and try something new in the meantime. Studies have shown that creative, engaging activities such as painting, drawing, playing games, solving puzzles, making things, or reading provide relief from stress and worry and boost self-esteem and general wellbeing.

  1. Remind yourself that mental health is just as important as physical health

Many people think of the mind and body as being distinct, but they are more like two halves of a whole. Just as our physical health impacts our mental wellbeing, our emotions can also affect us physically – an example of this is feeling your heart race and stomach tie in knots when thinking about giving a speech or going on a first date – so to be at one’s best is to be both physically and mentally healthy.  The importance of finding meaning, purpose, and accomplishment in life, both on and off-shore, is easily underestimated but essential to overall health and wellbeing.   

  1. Check-in with yourself

Few of us make time to reflect on how we feel, especially during busy or stressful periods. Noticing when we feel happy, proud, or satisfied, have pleasant experiences, or feel grateful for something or someone is an instant mood-boost and can help to put things into perspective. Equally, if you notice that you aren’t feeling as good as usual, remind yourself of these steps and do something to improve your mood.

  1. Know you’re not alone

Loneliness is a huge factor in mental ill-health, but is a natural consequence of being away from loved ones for long periods of time. Staying connected is important, but communication with friends and relatives can be limited on longer voyages. Writing regular, short updates or spending time on longer letters to post or email to loved ones when you can will help you all to feel connected when video calls or instant messages aren’t possible.

Making meaningful connections with crewmates is equally important. Humans are social animals and having a sense of community lifts our spirits and keeps us feeling energised. You don’t have to discuss mental health or personal experiences if you don’t want to; regular, positive conversations about things outside of work, or things that are important to you, and taking part in (or organising) shared games, competitions, celebrations, and social activities will boost your wellbeing and the morale of your on board community.

If you do find yourself feeling low, remember that you’re neither the first nor the only person to feel this way. It’s so common, in fact, that there are plenty of organisations providing support for seafarers specifically (see the end of this article for some options).

Keeping these simple steps in mind while off-shore will help you to have the best possible experience, give your best to your career, and get the most out of your life at sea. For more information on wellbeing, see Seafarer Help’s guide on Wellbeing at Sea and their Positive Mental Health guide for more tips and advice on staying healthy.

If you’d like to speak to someone confidentially about any concerns, visit the Seafarer Help website or call +44 (0)7741 594 549

Or for confidential online support and therapy see the Seafarer’s Hospital Society website or call 020 8858 3696

If you’ve experienced trauma at sea, contact the Sailors’ Society Crisis Response Network

For independent advice on careers, education, and finances, contact the Marine Society on 0207 654 7050. We also have an online store where you can buy books and we supply crew libraries to vessels.

Sophie Homer is currently completing her PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Plymouth. The University is home to the UK’s first and largest Marine Institute, representing more than 3000 staff, researchers and students, and is committed to promoting all aspects of the marine environment including its impacts on positive mental wellbeing.