March 12th, 2020
A mental health and wellness helpline service set up to support sea and shore-based maritime personnel worldwide is receiving increasing requests for assistance as the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic crisis mounts. iCALL for Seafarers is a free, confidential and anonymous psychological helpline for the worldwide maritime community established by leading Singapore-based shipmanager Synergy Group in October 2018 in partnership with India’s renowned Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
“We had a 40% jump in messages and calls in February and coronavirus is an issue,” said Dr Aparna Joshi, Director of iCALL. “We’ve now added a 15th counsellor to ensure all seafarers and their families receive the help and support they need.” Now available in ten languages, iCALL for Seafarers is available 24/7 via phone, email and the chat-based nULTA App.
“Management at TISS tell me there has been a recent increase in calls received from maritime personnel and this is entirely understandable,” said Captain Unni, CEO and Founder of Synergy Group.
“We have highlighted the intense pressure on seafarers due to the spread of coronavirus so it is no surprise the spike in calls might be related. “Current events really just highlight that shipping has for far too long been in denial of the mental pressures on ship crews.
“Seafarers are on the front line of world trade supplying the consumer necessities and commodities we all need during this pandemic. They should have all the support they need.” Since its inauguration, counsellors located at TISS in Mumbai have fielded daily calls, emails and online chats from maritime personnel and their families. All 15 counsellors that currently support distressed maritime personnel have at least a Master’s degree in Clinical or Counselling Psychology and are trained to help with over 20 wellness issues including mental health, career anxiety, relationships, suicide & self-harm, substance use and work-life concerns.
A first-year report into the counselling conducted by iCALL for Seafarers found that the top three mental challenges seafarers and their families raise with counsellors relate to emotional distress, relationship issues and work-life concerns. Despite seafaring still being male-dominated, 17% of the calls received were made by females. “It’s heartening to see a vague idea about setting up a completely anonymous psychological helpline for seafarers turn into one of the most important mental health initiatives in shipping,” said Captain Unni.
“The availability of mental health support for seafarers and their families is crucial now more than ever. I’m delighted that with TISS’s support that is what we are able to offer help through iCALL for Seafarers.” Dr Joshi said the partnership between TISS and Synergy was built on a vision to create a healthy environment on ships where mental health is prioritized and help-seeking is normalized. “Together we aspire not only to create interventions to address mental health concerns, but also to promote mental well-being,” she said.
“iCALL has addressed diverse issues of seafarers such as those related to work-life balance, interpersonal relationships, self-image, sexual health and suicide. Moreover, iCALL has facilitated workshops and engaged in outreach activities with the support from Synergy Group to raise awareness in shipping about the importance of mental health.”
Dr Joshi said iCALL starts from a belief in the philosophy that suicide is preventable if adequate care is available to the vulnerable. “We have been able to create a network of first responders on ships who help with early identification of potential crises and help build an empathetic culture,” she added.
“I am grateful for the proactive efforts of the Synergy team that have helped us extend the services to other seafaring companies across the globe. I also appreciate the sensitivity Synergy has shown towards the vital cause of mental health and the issues faced especially by women seafarers.”
Captain Unni said Synergy was fully-committed to the long-term success of iCALL for Seafarers.
“The important element of this for me personally is not the numbers but when we’ve really helped individuals,” he added. “When I hear that seafarers have called up with obvious suicidal tendencies and have been counselled, provided with psychological services and support, and their wellbeing ensured with several follow-up sessions, it is fantastic to know this project is making a difference.
“I have always maintained that mental health issues must be treated with the same urgency with which we in shipping treat safety-related issues.
“Having a world-class helpline in place ensures that every seafarer – irrespective of the owner or manager she or he is employed by – has access to support when they need it.
“This is the least we owe our seafarers.”