Working long hours throughout the season, missing home, family, friends or partners, not forming solid friendships on board (the yachting “family” element can be a lifesaver if it works – if it doesn’t it can be devastatingly lonely), politics… a bully boss or difficult senior figure, there are so many possible triggers in the high pressure yachting environment that can, and regularly do, affect individuals.
A stewardess, let's call her "Annie" told me she found the constant pressure to be pretty and skinny too much to bear. Annie is a normal frame, but on her last yacht the owner insisted on all girls being on the slimmer side which resulted in a very negative environment, promoting unhealthy relationships with food. She told me her chief stew had developed an eating disorder for fear of losing her job due to weight gain, and the other stews were generally miserable due to hunger. Annie left after a season because the pressure was too much. She told me, "I'd lock myself in my cabin when the crew did watersports days. I was embarrassed to be seen in a bikini, to the point of self hatred. I cried a lot that year." Annie left the industry and returned to the UK and went on to manage a restaurant. She said it's taken her a long time to alter her perception of herself and not be so critical.
Deckhand "Adam" left his last yacht due to bullying from the first officer. "Obviously now, looking back, I can see that he was a deeply troubled man." He said. "His girlfriend had cheated on him, at least once that he knew about, and as she was working on another boat he was constantly on edge. For some reason he started picking on me on my first week. Name calling, giving me the worst jobs and so on." Fortunately Adam had worked a year on another yacht so this wasn't his first experience of the industry like Annie. "I managed to stick out the season purely for my cv but honestly, it was tough. Thank god for Skype and friends; the other crew helped me get through it." When asked why he didn't tell the captain, Adam told me "he knew and did nothing, said some comment about it being character building. I don't think he really knew how to address it." The first mate is still onboard and is allegedly still terrorizing new deckhands in some sad way to make himself feel empowered.
The trigger doesn't necessarily have to be so dramatic; chief stew "Andrea" told me that despite having had four fantastic years in the industry, one day she just felt like she couldn't do it anymore. "I was just so tired all the time. I'd lost my sparkle. I just wanted to hide in my cabin and sleep and do nothing but stare at the wall. Then I became paranoid, and eventually it affected my job. My captain was great, he gave me extended leave to go home and put myself first and think about what I wanted to do. He said I'd become a shadow of my former bubbly self and it pained him. It was nice he pulled me aside to show his concern, I'd become so withdrawn that I'd begun to think nobody cared. It made me realize that depression affects a lot of people on yachting but we are often too embarrassed to speak up." Andrea took some time out to re evaluate with her family and friends and had regular sessions with a therapist. She returned to join the yacht, where she helped the captain implement a rotation system for all crew. "Time out to recharge and get your head back together is essential to good mental health," she said, "and being able to speak about depression from a personal standpoint has enabled us to build a great happy crew and avoid issues before they become too serious."
Speaking to a local mental health care specialist in Mallorca, I was shocked to discover that over two thirds of her patients are yacht crew. She explained since moving to a yacht hub, she's discovered what a stressful environment and what challenging conditions crew are subjected to. Like many therapists, she offers consultations not just in person, but also by Skype so when you're working away you don't have to be alone when it gets too much. Most of her clients are referrals from private doctors who see crew after a long season and recommend they talk to someone to learn how to process and cope with situations, feelings and emotions. "It's ok to reach out and ask for help," she explained, "it's not a sign of weakness. It's quite the opposite; acknowledging you're unhappy and taking positive steps to address this is a sign of strength."
There are plenty of warning signs we should learn to recognize, not just in ourselves but in other crew or colleagues.
To name but a few:
Lethargy - not just being knackered after charter
Change in personality
Lack of appetite or comfort eating
Obvious signs too... Someone who continually cries in their cabin is not a happy bunny! For comprehensive lists, Google is just a smartphone away and there are literally hundreds of websites dedicated to depression, eating disorders and other mental issues. There are also a number who have online help, 24/7. All you need is an Internet connection and you could be talking to either a professional, or perhaps someone who is feeling in the same boat as you. You don't even have to talk out loud! In extreme cases, those feelings, if left untreated, can develop into suicidal thoughts. Ok, some people don’t exhibit any warning signs but about 75% of suicides do – so we all need to be aware of these signs and do what we can to help them. Talking about this should be encouraged, especially in bigger crews where one person’s sudden quiet behaviour or loss of interest in doing stuff, insomnia or general withdrawal might be missed or glossed over as someone who’s just feeling tired after a long season.
There seems to be a stigma surrounding depression and how to cope with it, or a perceived weakness in asking for help. The new HELM courses (Human Element and Leadership Management) courses go into detail about leadership styles and how to manage communication etc but where’s the real human element – why is depression not mentioned? Even going back to initial training. The module of the STCW; Personal Safety and Social Responsibility. Surely the latter part could introduce new crew to just being aware of their colleagues and learning about how working in a high pressure environment can affect a person? If you, or someone you know might be having suicidal thoughts, you can find a list of international suicide help lines here: www.suicide.org.
Look after each other out there!