Depression, COVID-19, and Filipino Seafarers

COVID-19 is causing depression among seafarers
COVID-19 is causing depression among seafarers

What is depression and how does it affect seafarers on board?

Depression at Sea

Depression is a common mental disorder affecting more than 265 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization defined it as “characterized by persistent sadness and lack of interest or pleasure in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities.” It affects how one feels, thinks, and behaves and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. It can be triggered by stressful life events such as loss.

Last year, a study by Yale University which was commissioned by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust revealed “dangerously high levels of mental stress among seafarers.” The results released in October was alarming. Based on the answers of the respondents who took the survey, one-quarter of them had suffered depression, 17 percent experienced anxiety, and one out of five contemplated suicide or self-harm.

Just to emphasize this happened last year when things were okay and what we call normal used to be different. Before 2019 ended, the coronavirus outbreak started in Wuhan, China. What health authorities considered to be a mysterious case of pneumonia expanded and affected every corner of the globe. The novel virus created a world pandemic that sickened and killed many. It also paralyzed many industries including mine – the cruise industry. An industry that used to be esteemed as beneficial now became completely problematic. The very thing that makes it attractive and lucrative now became its curse. Cruise ships are often settings for outbreaks of infectious diseases because of the closed environment, contact between travelers from many countries, and crew transfers between ships.

What is the No Sail Order made by CDC?

The Start of Cruise Catastrophe

The havoc caused by the novel virus convinced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue its first “No Sail” directive on March 14. At that time, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which counts dozens of major cruise lines as members, announced the suspension of its cruise ship operations for 30 days. As of this writing, the federal ban on cruise ships operating in U.S. territory is being extended through September 2020. And that translates to more losses not just for the cruise operators, but also for people working on those ships. The tides have turned, and sadly to our disfavor.

In response to CDC’s directive, the biggest cruise lines have made announcement suspending their operations. Passengers have to be immediately disembarked while crew members remained to await their flights home. My contract was supposed to finish in April, but it was cut short. I left the ship on March 22 together with the other ship crew. My contract at sea usually lasts for 6 months. It is always punctuated with joy. This last one was completely different though.

How did my latest contract at sea end?

Bitter End and Sorrowful Memory

From the Bahamas, I traveled long hours with questions and sadness covered by a mask. I thought I’d feel safer and happier when I would reach home. I was wrong. The trip from NAIA to my hometown was surprisingly quick and yet eerie as the roads were almost empty. When I stepped out of the car, I couldn’t hug my mom nor anyone. We only smiled and then I headed to my room where I stayed for two weeks alone.

For days, even after my self-quarantine, I couldn’t sleep. At first, I thought my body clock was just messed up, but deep inside me, I know there’s something else that’s off. The sadness lingered and multiplied its size with endless questions and more doubts. I was long out of the water yet I felt like getting drowned.  

While I was at home, the deadly virus continued to mercilessly cast its spell around the world.  International travel was knocked out. Borders were closed and so were the ports leaving poor seafarers including some of my friends with no choice but to stay on board and in effect exceeding the length of their contracts. It is noteworthy mentioning an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention widely known as the Seafarer’s Bill of Rights that limits a worker’s single tour of duty to less than 12 months. Sadly, this was bypassed. Even up to know there are still ship crew who couldn’t go home. The anxiety and worry mostly brought by repatriation issues compromised the physical and ultimately the mental health of the ship workers. A few suicide cases have been reported.

Who are the crew members who took their own lives?

Deaths and Other Sad Stories

On April 30, a Polish crew member jumped overboard the cruise ship Jewel of the Seas. The man was only 27 years old and worked as an electrician on board. A week after, on May 9 to be exact, a 29-year old Hungarian crew member who worked as a shore excursion assistant, was found dead in a cabin on the Carnival Breeze. The ship was making its way to Southampton, England and other areas in Europe to repatriate the crew members. On May 9, a 39-year old Ukranian woman jumped overboard the Regal Princess while the ship was docked outside the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

And the most tragic of all, on June 9, a Filipina employee of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship died while waiting for repatriation to the Philippines. Her name was Mariah Jocson, 28 years old, a restaurant staff, and a new hire. The young woman from Mandaluyong was with 2 000 crew members on the Harmony of the Seas who were waiting in Barbados to be returned home.

The spike in numbers of seafarers in distress was disturbing. Yes, repatriation issue was the number one cause of anxiety but there are also many other reasons why ship workers worry and feel anxious and depressed. As explained before, depression is triggered by stressful life events such as loss. And I think some fellow ship workers will agree that this feeling of unease continues even after you’ve left the ship and have returned to your family. The worry lingers. It’s like grieving over a “loss” in silence. You might be wondering what exactly did we lose?

What are the causes of seafarers’ depression and anxiety that are related to COVID-19?

Losses and Defeat

5 losses that cause depression among Filipino seafarers
5 Big Losses of Filipino Seafarers in times of COVID-19

1.       Self-identity

We stay longer at sea and as much as we hate to admit it, our stay on ships has occupied a huge part of our life, enough for it to somehow define who we are. Our identity is tied too strongly to our job. For most workers, the contract lasts for six to eight months and vacation at home is only a month to two. We spend most of our time and energy on board. Naturally, after the layoff, we become shocked, distracted and confused. A mild depression could set in and worst, we feel ashamed.

2.       Support

Before COVID-19 seafarers just like any other overseas Filipino heroes were called unsung heroes. Our jobs help our families and the country’s economy mainly because of the remittances we send. When cruise operations were halted, thousands of seafarers began arriving in the Philippines via charter planes, and the cruise ships themselves. They were placed in a 14-day preventive quarantine by our government before they were allowed to go back to their hometowns. Sadly, some residents have recently rejected the idea of converting hotels into temporary shelters for repatriated Filipino seafarers who they feared are carriers of the deadly virus. Others even openly voiced their opinions on social media that seafarers shouldn’t be allowed back home.

3.       Security

Having a job means a steady pay check. There’s a sense of security attached to it. This is very true for Filipino seafarers who chose to work away from their families just to have the means to support them and create a better future for people they love. This unexpected unemployment, created a major financial hit among many Filipino families. The income dropped and consequently added extra worry and anxiety about bills and debts. The future that once looked promising is now bleak and impossible to achieve.

4.       Safety

This pandemic has created a new normal that is scary and uncertain. Suddenly, hugging, shaking hands, or even standing within six feet of each other is restricted. Businesses, schools, and even churches closed. We were stripped of the license to control the structure of our society and the many things that we previously enjoyed. It doesn’t help that no matter how hard the medical team from different countries are trying, the elusive vaccine that can put an end to this chaos hasn’t been found. Fear replaced pleasure when going out. We’re scared of getting the deadly virus and passing it to our families and friends.

5.       Sanity

This one is more of a consequence brought by the other four, either individually or in combination. The ordeal has taken a toll on the mental health of many with reports some taking their own lives. This is the case not just for seafarers and other OFWs but also for the rest of the people around the world. This generation has never experienced anything big like this before. The death toll was dreadful. We’re fighting a sinister enemy whose bullets we cannot see.  Everyone is left hanging as no one can answer when this pandemonium will end. Instinctively, we feel weak and powerless.

Unfortunately, there’s a lack of reliable data about seafarers’ suicide during the pandemic crew change crisis. This has been highlighted by Seafarer’s UK at the beginning of Seafarers Awareness Week, with a call for the Maritime Labor Convention. It is my prayer that no more weary souls will be added to the last reported four who succumbed to death.

How did I ward off depression while at home?

My Self-Journey

Originally, my last contract was supposed to end on April 16, the date I eagerly and excitedly waited for while I was still on the ship. I was literally counting the days together with my other youth worker friends most of whom were scheduled to go home the day after I leave. Our lives were changed when COVID-19 started. I remember thinking this too will pass easily just like SARS which happened years before. There’s no need to worry, but regrettably, I was wrong.

April 16 came and I was in my room. I’ve been home for three weeks. I was lonely, confused, and lacking sleep. What was supposed to bring a period to a long wait has taken me to a sea of commas instead. I was long away from the ship and yet ironically, I felt the agony of not knowing where to and when. Then one momentous day, an old friend invited me to join her abundance group where she will share meditation tips online for 21 days. I was not convinced at first but I thought why not. I can always quit if things don’t work out. What can possibly go wrong? What can go more wrong than what’s happening now?

And so I journeyed for almost a month. The tasks were interesting and they kept me on my toes. It’s like doing something exciting every day. I’m traveling within and seeing different parts of me. The ugly, scared, insecure, selfish, and weak. The happy, innocent, faithful, loving, and bold. The meditation relaxed me and brought my sleep back to normal again. I would do it at 1 in the morning when my day was finally over and then I’d go to bed gifted with peace. Thanks to this wonderful experience I’ve had the pleasure of meeting three versions of myself – my old, my present, and my future. And I love what I saw. There is gratitude for the past, understanding for the now, and hope for tomorrow.

How can fellow seafarers win against depression?

COVID-19’s Gifts

6 ways for Filipino seafarers to fight depression
Fight depression in times of COVID-19

There are nuggets of wisdom that I got from my experience and I’d like to share them with you now. If you’re feeling depressed, worried, and lonely this might help you too. Let’s summarize the six lessons I learned into one word, and that is THANKS. This pandemic might spell curse, death, loss, and all things negative for some. If we try so hard though and confront it with the right mindset, there’s treasure hidden under its lethal touch.   

Give THANKS

Gratitude is a form of self-care. Experts have long argued that gratitude won’t cure depression but it can ease it. A study reported in Psychology Today found that people with anxiety and depression who kept a daily gratitude journal were able to sleep better. When we encourage ourselves to think of things to be grateful for no matter how small they are, our negative thought process is challenged. We start counting our daily gains instead of focusing on our losses. And the more we express our gratitude for what we have, the more our minds become magnets attracting more things to say thank you for. Recent studies have also shown that gratitude releases two feel-good hormones called dopamine and serotonin. At the same time, the level of the stress hormone cortisol is reduced.

Ask for HELP

We are born social beings and we lead better and more meaningful lives when we care about each other. Since we’re stuck at home and we’ve been away for so long, this is the perfect time to rekindle family relationships and strengthen personal ties with them. This moment calls for honesty as well. They are your family and most often than not, they will honor how you feel. They will understand the emotional rollercoaster you are going through. Open your arms and allow them to help you. Let them express their empathy, trust, love, and care. Allow them to serve you. Learn together so you will know what to do as the whole world swirls crazily around you. Listen to their advice and welcome all kinds of supportive behavior they will offer. Let their love become your buffer against this hard fall.

Get ACTIVE

Just like gratitude, the links between depression, anxiety, and exercise aren’t entirely clear. However, different forms of physical activity can definitely ease symptoms of depression or anxiety and can make you feel better. Studies have proven that exercise raises endorphin levels, another feel-good hormone and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being. It takes your mind off your worries cutting your train of negative thoughts. You have a goal in your head and getting in better shape, as a result, leads to increased confidence. You are also coping against the crisis in a healthy way because by staying fit, your immune system is stronger and can fight against different kinds of viruses that can make you sick.

Start NEW

The best gift this pandemic can give you is an opportunity to rediscover and reinvent yourself. We weren’t advised but rather forced to do it. There’s nothing much to do since we’re trapped in our house. Use that time to dive into creative pursuits to rediscover your interests, talents, and strengths. Unlike before when we have limited vacation time which is usually eaten by training and renewing of document in order to work on ships again, now you don’t have an excuse to try things you wanted to do before.  Now you have more time to write, play music, dance, sew, garden, vlog, and many other choices. As long as they’re enjoyable and engaging, you are up for a good time. Who knows? One of these new found hobby can bring you additional income.

be KIND to yourself

Being kind to yourself means being honest. It’s okay to cry and get angry if that will make you feel better, but learn when to say enough and then stop. Do not wallow in self-pity and resentment. Relax and take a deep breath. It really helps. Devote at least 5 minutes of your day doing anything you find relaxing. It’s different for everyone. It can be reading a book, listening to music, watching K-dramas alone, drinking coffee, taking a hot bath, or meditating. If you can’t pick, a simple act of deep breathing is really effective and helps induce calm. Find a comfortable place and do it for a few minutes.

SURRENDER all

With so many things going on, it’s so easy to get lost. Remain faithful because faith provides hope and the gift of redemption. Old stories of people who had unwavering faith will give inspiration and reminder that greater good comes from adversity and sufferings. Isn’t the cross the most powerful reminder that suffering has a purpose? Trust and surrender everything to Him. He looked after you while sailing across many seas. He’ll do even more now that you’re back here. He got us covered.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!!! This verse has kept me afloat during the lockdown. I’m sure we’ve all lost something in this unprecedented time. Let us not be discouraged. Maybe a chapter has ended so we can explore new pages. Just like the prophet Elijah, let’s choose to keep our faith. Feel, hear, taste, and witness the ABUNDANCE of the rain. He will put this long period of drought to an END.

Follow your dreams,

Jen

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