Crew wellbeing in marine casualty investigations
It is often said that the 3 most stressful life events that people experience are bereavement, divorce and moving home. Seafarers can experience these too of course, but they have additional stresses and strains arising from the vocational nature of their jobs and the safety-critical environments in which they operate. Layer on top of that the real hardships they currently face due to the Covid-19 pandemic and it is clear they can have a lot to deal with simply as a matter of routine.
But seafaring also has its own set of non-routine, high stress events: abandonment, piracy and major casualties. These dangers are part of life at sea. The risk of them happening doesn’t cease to exist when you end your watch or knock off for the day.
Helping seafarers with the stress and trauma that can arise due to abandonment by owners and employers, or attacks and hostage-taking by pirates, is the province of mental health professionals. Marine casualties on the other hand don’t seem to merit as much attention, particularly on the investigation side. Clinical psychologists are not marine investigators, and vice-versa. Also, it does not seem to be widely appreciated that in a marine casualty, crew members are vulnerable to a double dose of stress and trauma as they can be both victim and first-responder. The aftermath of a serious incident, in which those on board are needed to help stabilise or rectify a hazardous condition, can be at least as stressful as the incident itself. Given the range of human responses to stress it is entirely possible to encounter adverse reactions and cognitive impairment among crew members, even in low-grade marine casualties.
Most marine investigators, and specifically investigative interviewers, would probably think of themselves as skilled, empathetic, good at establishing rapport and focused on obtaining good results for their principals. Their agenda and objectives are set by the type of investigation. Most will also adopt a broadly ethical approach in their interactions with interviewees, although from what I have seen over the years, the interpretation of what is ethical is subjective and variable.
The twin issues that every marine investigator must consider are, am I getting the best information and evidence I can, and am I doing harm to the interviewee? The first arises because high levels of stress, whether residual, on-going or resulting from fear of consequences and of the interview process, can impair cognitive functions and the ability to recall memories. The second arises because the nature of an investigative interview involves probing for answers on matters that the interviewee may find distressing, at a time and place not of their choosing, and when they may not have had an opportunity to process their experiences and emotions. If undetected or exacerbated by the interview process, the interviewee’s mental anguish may become prolonged and could develop into PTSD.
About a year ago, I started working with Dr Rachel Glynn-Williams, a consultant clinical psychologist, whose specialisms include trauma treatment among seafarers. Our collaboration has led to the development of an investigative interview model we call TIMS™ - Trauma-informed Interviewing in a Marine Setting. The phrase “trauma-informed” refers to both specific trauma-informed interview techniques embedded in the model and to our general approach to our interactions with all those on board in a marine casualty situation.
Early in the development of the TIMS™ model, we recognised the ethical need to address the mental and emotional wellbeing needs of interviewees and the wider crew. Where a personal connection is made between interviewer and interviewee, a pathway opens up to explore with the interviewee their wellbeing support needs, to apply psychological “first-aid” as appropriate and, in consultation with the clinical psychologist, to help identify any need for more structured support. The reality is that TIMS™ sits within what we refer to as a Crew Wellbeing Continuum or CWC, starting with psychological support services at an organisational level, through crew-wide and individual self-help guidance pre-interview, a compassionate and supportive interview process, right up to on-going structured support for individuals requiring it.
After a lot of hard work over the last year, we are proud and excited to have launched our TIMS™ and CWC services through Recall Recover Limited. We think together they represent an evolution in marine casualty investigation. You can find out more about the features and benefits of our services at recallrecover.com.