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Psychological First Aid

Onboard Spring 2023


In the last issue of Onboard we talked (yet again) about the importance of mental health awareness
and training in the yachting industry. We identified there are some big holes in current yacht crew
training and that there is big potential to incorporate what’s known as Psychological First Aid
training and awareness into courses as early as the basic STCW 10 – in the PSSR (Personal Safety and
Social Responsibility) module, as well as becoming more in depth in the HELM (Human Element and
Leadership Management) courses at operational and management levels. In addition, many industry
professionals have accepted there is a need for training for all crew in senior roles; a PFA course
could, and should, be incorporated into all crew’s Continued Professional Development.

So why am I banging on about this again? Well because if I don’t, if WE don’t, there simply won’t be
a change. Every time that we lose someone to suicide in this industry there’s five minutes of uproar
and then everyone just goes back to how things were. The more voices we find to band together, the
greater our impact could and will eventually be.

Firstly, what IS PFA? Well let’s check our friendly Wikipedia page for a quick definition: “PFA is a
technique designed to reduce the occurrence of post traumatic stress disorder.” However, in the
context of yachting and the yachting environment, we’re using PFA as more of an umbrella term to
cover all areas of mental health awareness and training. We’re not just talking about how to help
crew who’ve suffered trauma onboard (let’s say witnessing an accident). We want crew to feel safe
physically of course, but we also need crew to feel safe mentally. This is a basic need; go back to
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (remember that triangle from school?) well that first level right at the
bottom starts with physiological needs – so food, water, and sleep. The next step is SAFETY.
Maslow’s hierarchy tells us that if that need is not satisfied, then a person simply cannot move on up
the levels to develop their relationships, to feel loved and wanted, to feel recognised and then to
achieve self-actualization. Why do we need to do this on yachts? Well from the owner point of view,
if your crew’s basic needs aren’t being met, they’re not going to be good at their jobs are they?

The yachting industry is getting this issue fundamentally wrong and if we want to continue
developing good, healthy, happy, cohesive, well functioning crews, this simply has to be addressed.

Speaking about this to Karine Rayson, the Crew Coach, she explained, “the onset of mental health
issues is becoming more and more prominent in our industry due to numerous factors,
namely but not limited to; inappropriate workplace behaviours such as bullying, verbal/sexual
assault as well as having to endure long work hours away from their positive support
network for extended periods of time.” Karine agrees that the STCW does not currently go
far enough, adding, “One of the objectives of the STCW is to promote the safety of life
through minimum standard safety training. One way to reduce the impact of mental health
issues onboard is through education. Since crew spend their working and living hours
together it seems likely that a fellow crew member with the appropriate knowledge and skills
would be able to detect the early signs and symptoms of a developing mental health issue.
This would put them in a good position to offer help and support a colleague whilst they seek
professional assistance. Just as we stress the importance of having a safety officer onboard
so should we equally have designated crew members to be peer support workers or mental
health first aid officers?”

Exactly the reason why the PSSR module right at the start should be used to give all crew
the basic knowledge, the ability to spot warning signs – in themselves AND in their co-
workers, and the tools to help. I’m not suggesting crew should be able to counsel but they
should know what to do, i.e. report it to the designated person on board (who’s had more

training and is happy to be responsible for the duties this role would entail), be it a HOD, the
Chief Mate, or even someone ashore in the management team. There should be clear
procedures in place in the workplace, just as they are for a physical accident. And then,
these people should have solid resources upon which to draw. The yachting industry needs
people not only trained and experienced in their field of psychology and therapy, but they
also need to be aware and understanding of what life as yacht crew truly entails, and how
damn hard it can be on someone’s morale. If we only meet one of those two criteria, we’re
already falling short.

Karine stated, “Without psychological safety you will see low crew morale, low productivity and low
job satisfaction. Bullying will certainly prevent the development of psychological safety.”
She is fearful that this behaviour is being “normalized within the maritime sector and on board of
ships: a trend that demonstrates a serious lack of psychological safety. Improving education,
knowledge and understanding on psychological safety has an immediate effect on seafarers’ mental
and physical well-being. This will, in turn, augment onboard operational safety, security and
environmental protection.” Clearly as we’ve demonstrated, prevention is better than cure. We know that, so rather than trying to patch the cuts after they’re made, isn’t it time we prevented them from happening in the first place?

I also spoke to Amanda Hewson Beaver, nurse, teacher, medical instructor for Medical Support
Offshore in Palma (MSOS), plus expert in Marine Medicine, Expedition Medicine and Wilderness
Medicine. Amanda has also skippered yachts, and from early experiences working with yacht crew
listening to their stories, became increasingly aware that mental health issues were not just growing
but in some cases spiralling; “People with suicidal tendencies, serious depression… [they] started
outweighing the major traumas as the biggest risk we had onboard. And that’s when I thought, we
have to do something.”

Her interest in Psychological First Aid continued to grow and she undertook several courses from all
over the world. Using her global contacts including Wilderness Medicine experts, Trauma Doctors,
Nurses and Psychologists, she’s now working on developing a Yacht Specific Psychological First Aid
Course – next step is to get it certified and recognised. Arguably this could be the most challenging

Amanda believes PFA should be non-negotiable. She described her first course as a lightbulb
moment for her, “it’s part of basic first aid and leadership. Without a doubt every person on a yacht,
every person in the world should do this course, they should teach it at school!”.
I for one am not alone in being very excited to see a course like this specifically geared towards yacht
crew and all our associated stresses really come to life. At the moment it’s being tested on various
volunteers including ocean racers and wilderness specialists to iron out the details. With input from
so many experts, and real crew from real situations, I hope organisations such as the MCA take note
and get on board with promoting PFA as it’s long overdue.

How do we get these changes? As Amanda said, “We have to keep banging on the doors of the
training providers, speak to the company owners, yacht management companies and the
organisations responsible. We just have to keep talking about it and demanding change.”
It’s a long road, and it’s a bumpy road, but together, our voices will be loud enough to be heard if we
keep shouting.

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