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Mental Health Support Solutions: The importance of culture and communication

Mis-communication with colleagues, differences in behaviours, and struggles with dealing with emotions are just some of the challenges seafarers face when working in a team full of different cultures.

As a ship owner or management company, it is more important than ever that employees are given the tools to deal with their struggles while they are away working at sea, and are encouraged to communicate effectively.

Diversity among a team of employees can provide an individual with a huge set of strengths while becoming an experienced seafarer, such as management and people skills, good communication and understanding how to deal with different cultures. It can also help with creating an effective team of diverse colleagues with different strengths.

But with the skills, also comes a fresh set of challenges for seafarers to deal with. During a crisis, people working onboard ships can struggle with their emotions due to unforeseen circumstances, such as an extension to their contact, limited crew changes, personal issues, not to mention the issues surrounding the threat of a global pandemic.

Working with colleagues of different cultures can also lead to misunderstandings and communication breakdowns.
Mental Health Support Solutions has a team of experienced psychologists that can offer support services to both employees and employers.

Clinical psychologist Charles Watkins, managing director at Mental Health Support Solutions, said: “It is more important than ever that seafarers are given access to support platforms to help them practice good mental health and deal with any issues that may arise.

“Being a seafarer has always been a tough job mentally and that hasn’t changed over the years. But what has changed is the mental health culture and the importance that is being placed on giving people the tools to be able to discuss their feelings.
“Seafarers are starting to realise the importance of this and if a company can offer mental health support to seafarers, that can be a real draw in not only attracting loyal and happy employees, but retaining them too. It is really important for seafarers to see a good emphasis is being placed on their mental health. In fact, there has never been a more vital time than now.

“This year people are not only dealing with the everyday challenges of a life working at sea, but they are also dealing with the emotions and feelings involved in leaving their loved ones for months at a time in the midst of a global pandemic. So, it is really important support services are in place to help them communicate their feelings through a very worrying time.”

Having different cultures all mixing together as one team onboard can also highlight the differences in how staff present their own difficulties when things becomes too much. For example, uncontrollable crying and headaches are symptoms of panic attacks in some cultures, while gasping for air may be the main symptom in other cultures.

Charles Watkins

However, it is not just cultural differences that sometimes cause problems, purely having different personalities working and living together can also be challenging.

Some may have an easier time showing their anger and frustration, while others may have a harder time showing their emotions, Mr Watkins said.

“Some seafarers may have a depressive episode or connect more easily with feelings of sadness or fear instead of displaying anger openly. In some cultures suppressing one’s emotions is an adaptive strategy for getting along in society. This can be due to cultural differences as much as simply individual differences.”

He added: “There are often cross-cultural differences in beliefs about the relations between conformity, creativity, socially acceptable interactions, communication, and this provides insight into the kinds of behaviours that are encouraged in different cultural settings.

“This gap can be bridged by communicating openly about what exactly it means for the individual in question to go through the experience he or she is having at the moment. This can also help with individualising seafarers instead of stereotyping them.”

Mental Health Support Services offers a range of platforms to individuals and companies to help people maintain a healthy mind while working in the maritime industry, through tailored training, a 24/7 helpline to help those in need, and by holding conferences, seminars and round table discussions on mental health.

Mr Watkins explained how culture can play a part in mental health issues for seafarers, and how important it is for seafarers to feel they can talk openly about their feelings. The helpline the company provides can provide invaluable support to individuals.

“Culture may just as well influence how mental health is taken into consideration. There can be preconceived notions about what it means to suffer from mental health related issues. It can certainly influence anxiety and thoughts about losing one’s job or being declared unfit for sailing”, he explained.

He added: “Due to this worry and anxiety seafarers may choose not to disclose their suffering. However, talking to trusted colleagues or calling our psychological helpline which is confidential and private, can offer an immense form of relief. Talking openly about mental health offers relief for many seafarers and normalises feelings of sadness and worry.
“It is crucial that seafarers have access to information on their own, so they can develop an informed decision to talk about issues that arise at sea.

“Looking at well-being holistically, and including an appropriate mental health hygiene into their daily routine, can foster awareness and mindfulness on board. This aides with taking away the stigma of mental health and allows people to come together to openly discuss insecurities and fears about hard times that all of us go through during our lifetime.
“The more we normalise and openly discuss mental health related issues, the more we realise that suffering, anxiety, and imperfection are part of the shared human experience.”
Source: Catherine Taylor, Elaborate Communications

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