Mental health in our industry


We all know mental health within our industry needs to be talked about more. It’s not all glitz and glamour and our crew need protecting and they need more support from within the industry. But, where do we start?

On the morning of Thursday 24th November, many of us woke up to a video message from Karine Rayson, The Crew Coach, on Instagram, asking for our help to make a positive change for crew and their mental health in the yachting industry by answering her exclusive questionnaire. The purpose of which was to gather information about incidents, issues, unsafe working environments, and to use this information to hold people accountable for their behaviour.

Coincidentally, we also woke up to the tragic news that a bosun working on a motoryacht in the USA, Clive “Billy” Baker, had taken his own life.

Reactions to Billy’s suicide were quick to hit social media channels, with touching tributes, heartfelt condolences, shock, disbelief, and heartbroken crew all over the world coming together to share their memories of him. Something that stuck out for me, as I’m sure it did for many, were the comments saying, “Not another one.” “Not again.” Take that in for a moment. It’s a deeply sad time when suicide is viewed in this way, as commonplace, as a frequent occurrence. Here we go again though, we see a wave of anger across social media platforms, a sense of helplessness and of desperation from crew and industry professionals, demands for change, for better resources, for something, ANYTHING to help stop this happening again. But as always, the emotions die down, people carry on, and nothing, nothing changes.

So, what the hell is the yachting industry going to do about it?
So where do we start? How about with reviewing the training systems and starting from the bottom. In order to work on a yacht all crew must hold a minimum of the STCW basic safety training. First Aid? Great. Fire Fighting? Excellent. Personal Survival Techniques? Fantastic! Personal Safety and Social Responsibility? Hold up what even is that? I reviewed a number of seaschool websites to find out the syllabus in an attempt to figure out what crew learn on this one day course, as surely this would be a great opportunity to address mental health, in themselves and their co-workers, surely that’s PSSR right? Apparently not. According to the South West Maritime Academy’s website, the PSSR module “gives basic induction training in safety procedures and accident prevention and familiarizes novice seafarers with employment and working conditions aboard.” Clyde Training Solutions adds, “while familiarising them with the employment conditions”. Sounds all a bit fluffy and a bit vague to me so why not use that day to cover the above (in a couple of hours as, arguably, before spending over a grand on a basic safety course you’d think the crew might have googled all that but still), talk about mental health on board. Coping mechanisms, stress relief, what to do and who to talk to if you feel you’re struggling. We need a process in place for reporting mental health issues just as we do for reporting a physical accident. So, MCA I’m looking at you here, let’s address that right at the start of a crew’s training. Karine confirmed she feels the same and told me “I’ve been saying this for some time now, but it seems getting approval to make these changes takes a very, very long time.”

Damian Martin, Head of Edmiston Yacht Management, agreed, “PSSR is a single day (often less) module.  Given how the industry and how yachts have grown, I personally feel this is woefully inadequate in laying any grounding in these key areas.” He rightfully pointed out how the industry takes young adults from their normal lives, and, “after a single module about what is expected of them, we throw them into a mix with a variety of people from very different societal backgrounds, in a floating tin can of pressure, with often demanding guests and then look on in amazement when some crack or break… it shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

Damian went on to discuss this further, “When we carry out an audit, we carry out a ‘root cause analysis’ to try and work out where/why something has failed… the deckhand fell off the side of the yacht because he/she wasn’t wearing a harness – that is easy to fix.  The root cause analysis is very clear to me – we often set crew up to fail before they even begin, by not preparing them for what lies ahead and by not equipping, auditing our leaders to ensure that they can actually look after people when they need it.  You wouldn’t drive a boat without the right training, so why is it good enough to allow Senior crew to take responsibility for the well-being of other crew without giving them any tools to help them (not just captains, all crew with positions of responsibility have some responsibility for other human being’s welfare).”

The STCW First Aid is also just a one-day module, as any first aider knows, you can’t learn a huge amount in one 7-8 hour class, but as more senior crew have to complete more first aid qualifications why don’t we add another to the list – Psychological First Aid? In a small crew one person could be responsible for this, in a larger crew, each HOD could attend the course in order to better understand their teams and help them cope with pressures. I spoke to Amanda Hewson-Beaver, Yacht Medic, Senior Lecturer at a University of Medicine, and Emergency Nurse, and she absolutely recognises the need for this. She’s currently in Australia and New Zealand running courses at universities for doctors working on ships, boats, and expedition vessels. Amanda explained, “I’ve been to so many conferences. Resilience and psychological first aid are big topics here for health and military personnel. I’ve just finished running four courses in psychological first aid and we actually had to incorporate psych and mental health into our marine medicine university courses.” It’s clearly a huge area yacht training is missing at the moment; we’re being left behind by the other maritime sectors and other industries who recognise the importance of mental health.

Moving up the ladder, deck officers and engineers must complete the Human Element Leadership and Management course in addition to Advanced First Aid and Fire Fighting. Currently this is the first time courses actually touch upon the human element. There’s Operational, and then Management levels. Karine told me “I’ve not heard particularly positive things about the HELM course. This is why I have developed a 3-month leadership course – there’s no way you can become a good leader in 3-5 days!”.

Reading the syllabuses on various seaschool websites, both courses seem very much geared towards the operation of the vessel itself and not towards ensuring your crew are happy, healthy, and understood. Again, a real missed opportunity. When, some years back, the need for learning soft skills, people management, dispute resolution and all that good stuff was identified as somewhere the industry was lacking, this was the answer. It feels half assed. And the feedback on this course is not, overall, positive. It’s disappointing. Karine, whose background in psychology and yachting inspired her to set up as The Crew Coach, explained, “It’s important for leaders and managers to dig deep into their own abilities, and examine their own emotional intelligence. How can you lead others if you’re not aware of your own weaknesses, or how your actions impact others? The crew are the backbone of the vessel, owners and management companies need to invest in their crew’s personal and professional development, then they’ll get loyalty and retention in return as well as a well run yacht with a happy team.” Clearly we need better leadership courses which aren’t just generic management guides regurgitated. Yachting specific.

I put the question out to captains and sadly many told me they’d love to be more involved in the soft skills and soft skill training but they don’t have enough time. On larger vessels, many delegate this to their Chief Officers and Chief Stews who, without any official training at all, end up being the onboard “HR” department. Clearly captains need more support in order to do their jobs successfully. Many said they need more support from management. So what about the management companies? What’s their process for reporting/logging/addressing incidents with mental health?

Damian told me, “At Edmiston, sadly as yet, we don’t have formal process.  We have extremely caring members of our team, who are encouraged on a daily basis that what we do is a ‘people thing’ and that the strength of their relationships with their crew is vital to being an effective Manager.  We can and must do more.  I am in the final phases of a plan which we hope to implement across our fleet that we hope will go a long way to addressing some of the current shortfalls in the identification of areas of concern.  We encourage Owners to treat crew with respect, and to engage with their crew to create vessel identities.”

This gives me hope. It’s great to hear forward thinking people at management companies pushing for change. But what happens when you get a captain who ignores a crew member asking for help, and a management company who are equally as disinterested? Well in one case this past summer season, a chief stew attempted suicide. Only then did they realise she needed help so after attempting to blame everyone else and take no responsibility for their utter lack of care, they fired her and sent her home telling her to get some therapy. Helpful.

I asked Damian what the procedure is when a situation like this, where a crew member is struggling with mental health issues, is flagged up to his management team. He said, “Generally speaking, we talk… we talk to the captain, the crew member (if they’ll allow us), and we try to establish what the ‘root cause analysis’ is (clearly, we have better, softer terms) and then we try to work out how to help. I know from my own struggles with PTSD that very often, people just want an opportunity to talk, to be heard and to understand that what they are saying isn’t ‘stupid’ that they are not ‘weak’… Often, simply taking people ‘out of the line’ is as restorative as anything else… let’s get them off the vessel, to friends, family.  I have spoken to numerous parents about their children and our concerns, often these calls come completely out of the blue, but as yet, none of them has been unwelcome.  In more serious situations, we are identifying a number of partners who can offer assistance (bear in mind that in the UK, for example, you cannot simply ‘offer counselling’ a person needs to be referred by a Medical Doctor).  We have to understand what our limitations are, does jumping in with both feet achieve the right goal? Or is a more ‘softly, softly’ approach more appropriate.  Currently, as the Director of the Department, I personally oversee all cases such as these that are brought to us.  My fear is that many don’t make it to us… we are working with our captains to try and change that.”

It’s important we encourage crew to speak up for themselves and each other. And it’s very important those in charge, the HODs, or Captains, or managers, or even DPAs, listen with an open mind and take everyone seriously. Many crew fear being dismissed or regarded as “snow flakes”. I despise that term. Everyone needs to just be a little more understanding and look out for each other, for the people you work alongside or share a cabin with, for the people under your supervision, and lose the judgemental attitudes. You might but ok but everyone’s fighting their own battles so cut a little slack. As Damian reinforced, “it’s ok, not to be ok”.  Whilst we wait for more training to be implemented, and actively encouraged, let’s make sure we open up the lines of communication and start talking about this. Please, before we wake up to news of another lost soul…