There are many types of mental illness including bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and schizophrenia, but seafarers most commonly suffer from anxiety disorders or even depression, and might at some time be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Anxiety is a normal emotion that we all experience, such as in the run up to exams or a job interview, but when anxiety becomes much more severe this feeling can take over and begin to interfere with everyday life. For people with an anxiety disorder, feelings like stress, panic and worry are longer lasting, more extreme and far harder to control. Symptoms may also include feeling restless or agitated, panic attacks, having trouble concentrating or sleeping, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness and heart palpitations. Anxiety can feel like a spotlight in your mind shining on your deepest fears or worries at all times.
Depression is a long lasting low mood disorder which affects your ability to do everyday things, feel pleasure or take interest in activities. Depression is an internationally recognised mental illness, affecting about one in ten of us, is something that anyone can get and is treatable. It is NOT something you can 'snap out of’, a sign of weakness, something that everyone experiences, or something that lasts forever as one episode.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an illness that can occur after a serious and frightening experience. Life at sea can sometimes involve exposure to traumatic incidents, such as piracy and although most people cope well, perhaps with some short term distress, a few will develop persistent mental health conditions such as PTSD. The illness makes you re-live the event, causing distress and difficulty in day-to-day life, and symptoms may worsen if you see, hear or smell something that reminds you of the trauma.
It is estimated that somewhere between 10% and 25% of adults will experience mental illness at some time, affecting themselves and everyone around them. Most mental health professionals believe that there are a variety of contributing factors to the onset of a mental illness and these can be physical, psychological, social and/or environmental.
Coping with past or current traumatic experiences such as a piracy incident, bereavement or difficulties at home will potentially affect an individual’s mental and emotional well-being and in turn have an influence on mental health. Some of us are pre disposed to being at risk of developing a mental illness because of our own genetic make-up, but traumas to the brain can also sometimes lead to changes in personality and in some cases ‘trigger’ symptoms of an illness. Misuse of substances such as alcohol or drugs, a poor diet, low levels of fitness and fatigue can also play a part.
Living conditions, on board and at home, and the quality of family and shipboard support networks can all play a part as can social isolation or being highly stressed at work.