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The Importance of Psychological First Aid on Yachts

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 part.

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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