Mental illness on board during the pandemic

Mental illness among seafarers increased significantly during the pandemic. The longer time seafarers were on board, the higher was the rate of mental illness, which was even more pronounced among crewmembers on ships with flags of convenience, These results come from a study at the University of Gothenburg.

A survey was conducted in 2020 to investigate whether the pandemic was affecting the mental health of employees onboard international ships in comparison with a similar study from 2015-2016. The differences in mental health among the participants were significant. In the previous study, i.e. before the pandemic, 18.7 per cent of seafarers said that they did not experience symptoms of depression, such as low spirits or life feeling meaningless. During the pandemic, that figure dropped to 10.9 per cent. 

“Having  such symptoms at some point in your life is not unusual,” says Birgit Pauksztat, researcher at Uppsala University. “The interesting thing was such a sharp increase in mental illness during the pandemic compared to the previous study. Specific factors, such as the number of years on board, did not seem to have any effect on how they felt.” 

However, the researchers noted a correlation between structural factors and mental health on board, one of them being the length of shifts. 

“Those who were working longer shifts felt worse than those on shorter shifts. We also noticed that those who had to stay on board longer than planned due to problems with crew changes during the pandemic felt worse than others,” says Birgit Pauksztat. 

We know that if you stay on board for a long time, the risk of fatigue increases.

The factors behind this phenomenon were not investigated, but earlier research shows that the general atmosphere on a ship is important for crewmembers’ well-being. 

“We know that if you stay on board for a long time, the risk of fatigue increases. Those who were forced to stay on board longer than planned may also have felt depressed because it affected their lives in general, in terms of family and friends,” says Birgit Pauksztat. 

Another factor that affected how the crew felt was the ship’s flag; those working on ships with a flag of convenience generally felt worse than those working under other flags. 

“It may have been due to working conditions on board. We don’t know exactly, but it would have been interesting to study,” says Birgit Pauksztat. 

Birgit Pauksztat hopes that the results from the research will lead to better planning and organization of work on board and provide shipping companies with a better chance of preparing for future crises. 

“Maybe we should review the length of shifts and not let people work maximum hours for up to ten or eleven months. It is a very long time to be on board a ship, and there are no margins if something happens that forces people to stay on board longer than planned.” 

The study is called Effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health of seafarers: A comparison using matched samples. The 2020 survey was answered by 504 onboard employees, which was just over 200 fewer than in the 2015-2016 survey. The study was conducted in collaboration between Uppsala University, Curtin University and the University of Queensland in Australia. The study can be read at:

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