New study to focus on river industry’s mental health

While some of the evidence may be only anecdotal, discussions about mariners’ health increasingly focus on the mental as well as the physical.

“The arena of mental health is something the whole industry is picking up on,” said Naomi Walker, spokesman for the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), which recently hosted a roundtable on mental health at the International Seafarers Center at Port Newark, N.J., with topics ranging from suicide prevention to medical certificates and a reluctance to report problems for fear of job loss or denial of credentials.

“We were approached by various leaders in the inland river industry concerned about mental health, and they want resources to help combat this problem,” she said. SCI, whose chaplains talk with mariners, created a 40-minute e-learning course on suicide awareness tailored to the inland river. “We’re not really saying they are at more risk than the general population, but we do know there are stressors that can contribute to problems if not addressed. It is an issue, and we want to see what we can do to help.”

Seafarer suicide data, for instance, is incomplete, SCI’s recap of the event noted. “Anecdotal data on United States seafarers in the domestic towboat industry suggest that their suicides occur off-duty at home by self-inflicted gunshots, often within 48 hours before or after deployment to or from their vessel.”

The roundtable concluded that more mental health research is needed. Dr. Rafael Lefkowitz, an assistant professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, and Dawn Null, an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Southern Illinois University, will be collaborating on a study to learn more about mariners’ health — an issue they’ve both researched.

Not a lot of data exists on who has depression, anxiety or other conditions and what are the barriers to treatment. “People are too shy to talk about their feelings,” Dr. Lefkowitz said. The few mental health cases he’s found “makes us think there are more out there that haven’t been reported. What really sparked his interest was talking with SCI about the inland mariners they’re seeing.

Is there anything unique about mariners’ jobs that might cause problems? “There certainly are some psychosocial hazards,” said Dr. Lefkowitz, who attended the roundtable and whose research is being funded by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “Shift work can lead to fatigue and stress, but we also know many of them thrive on such work.” Maybe mariners are just like everyone else, or maybe the isolation on a boat and reluctance to get treatment contributes to problems. “There’s a stigma against mental health.”

So the lesson is it’s hard to learn a lot about mental illness, “because it’s not being reported in the same way as, for example, a broken arm,” he said.

Null is looking at the physical and activity status of mariners, which “also impacts your mental health.” Her 2012 dissertation on the health and nutrition implications of working on a towboat found that crew members are at increased risk of chronic disease related to factors such as lack of aerobic activity and unhealthy eating practices.

“Only 29% of the men and women who participated met federal physical activity guidelines,” she said — that’s 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. Deckhands, who tend to be younger, were more likely to meet the recommendations.

“The work itself is grueling, as are the shifts,” Null said in the report, which evolved after a stint training towboat cooks on food safety and nutrition. “It’s such a unique industry, and I really enjoyed working with the companies and people on the boats.”

Null and Dr. Lefkowitz plan to survey inland river mariners about their physical and mental health including sleep patterns and health-related behavior off the vessels. They’ll be contacting companies to see if they’ll send the online surveys to their mariners within the next few months. Names, data and companies will not be linked, she said. Results are expected in about a year.

“We’re seeing so many more mental health issues,” she said. “Is there anything we can do to help these men and women lead healthier lives while on the boat?”

SCI roundtable discussions also included key components of mariners’ work — medical certificates — and whether mental illness and related medications are disqualifying and whether certificates are assurances of good mental health.

“Screening for medical conditions, including mental health disorders, should take place during the general medical examination for merchant mariners,” a Coast Guard spokesman said.

Under the psychiatric conditions section, Navigation and Vessel Inspection Circular (NVIC) 04-08 recommends a mental health professional’s report on the status of the condition and medications. Applicants with conditions that don’t “pose significant risk of sudden incapacitation or debilitating complication” may qualify for a certificate, the Coast Guard said. For example, people “with uncomplicated depression are generally found qualified” when a doctor documents that the condition is stable and doesn’t require impairing medication.

“Medications that may be approved for medical certification include over-the-counter and prescription medications that do not impair cognitive ability, judgment or reaction time.”

The Coast Guard also notes, “Since 2014, the number of waivers granted for diagnosed mental health disorders has decreased considerably, from 584 in 2014 to 82 in 2017.”


About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.


  1. Avatar
    "Tiger" Leahu AB Tankerman on

    6 on 6 off watches – you never get more than 4.5 hrs sleep at a time. Everyone had chronic apathy. The tugs were designed to only carry 2 crew changes. 12hr shift were out of the question since barge crew were out in the elements with no shelter and no relief, even to get a cup of coffee. Cameras are trained on crew the entire time.

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    Would Love to tell you my side of the story. No B.S. just the truth from someone who rode the boats for almost 35 years. What you will get if you go out on the boats is all star coated. My will lie to you. Bet me if you get on boat there is all that good food. Yea right. So if you want to know the truth contact me. I’ll give the truth. Let it all out in black and white.

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    I have 20 years on the river working in the fleet you work 84 hours a week strait time in all kinds of weather conditions, your job is physical from the start of your watch till the end.
    You have tons of paperwork to do from EPA barge inspection forms to engine room logs, then the throw safety videos and quizzes at you with a time limit to get them done along with your normal duties on the boat.
    If you’re a Capt. you are responsible for your boat the crew the barges and the product they carry you have to answer emails and phone calls and the radios plus keep an eye on other boats and opsticals that may present them selves you too are at the mercy of the weather and currant river conditions.

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    We always said “YOU MUST BE CRAZY TO DO THIS JOB” so whats the problem? 50years as a towboat Captain now I’m retired and I am going insane.

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    84 hours a week + on call for 20 days at a time, Long term chronic sleep deprivation, Mental stress from hazardous cargoes and traffic conditions, frequent changes of procedures and ever increasing regulations along with “over the shoulder” supervision by less experienced people. Not to mention your physical condition being determined remotely by a board of ????? who haven’t seen a live patient in 20 -30 years. Social isolation from family and off the job friends all contributes to an unhealthy life expectancy. Sometimes I think these companies make their profit margin because not many of us live long after retirement age……

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    I would say definitely the most unhealthy job ever!! Companies give the Capt say so over the food bill, they offer a nice amount of $ for groceries then give a bonus to the Capt if he doesn’t spend it all. Most all boats are short on groceries, sleep is rare your up and down every 6 hrs, needs to be 6 on 8off to always feel refreshed and have a chance to excercise and to keep your mind right. Not only do you have everything stacked against you out here but the people you work for are against you, they say they have your back but that’s BS phone calls are nonstop and mariners are talked to as if their stupid by office personnel that has less than half the experience you have. It’s jacked up out here!! Miss the old days! And that’s just half of it.

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    What about mental duress. When a peer has legs cut off in front of you. Your on a 56 day run and yourself sustains an injury (broken ribs) on boat. You get medical but no mental health, no clergy, counselor, or debreifing after fetching your peer foot from the the river. This could very easily be anyone. Behavioral changes built up angar PTSD signs. Broken ribs on workmans comp during regular time off than 1st day back fired. Abnormal behavior…. hello mental duress. Where do i go now.

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