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Fishermen's Organization Offers Mental Health Resources

Maine’s commercial fishermen are familiar with uncertainty and uncontrollable circumstances under normal conditions, but the level of ambiguity and the impact of the current pandemic have sharply heightened worries regarding their businesses and the future of their industry. In addition, the lawsuits over right whale protection, the inherent risk associated with fishing, and possible future development of offshore wind projects further exacerbate concerns. Because of these things, and because of what we have been hearing from many fishermen, the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA) began efforts to explore and identify mental health and wellness resources available to Maine’s commercial fishermen. Initially, we wanted to produce printed and online materials that could be made easily available to fishermen seeking help, support, and information. But the need for support increased recently due to the pandemic and its potential to greatly impact family fishing businesses. So, to more immediately provide information to Maine’s fishermen MCFA reached out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI Maine).

MCFA staff sought help from NAMI Maine for our own well-being this past January after the devastating loss of our board president and friend, fisherman Joe Nickerson. NAMI Maine’s expertise and counsel guided our staff through an exceedingly difficult time. Our own experience with NAMI Maine led us to our decision to share their expertise and resources with fishermen.

NAMI Maine and MCFA have been working together since then to identify topics that are pertinent to fishermen during this time of pandemic but also under normal circumstances, such as times of grief, trauma, stress, anxiety, depression, and job insecurity. NAMI staff person Hannah Longley, LCS, has been helping write some of the blog posts for the MCFA website. “Feeling a lack of control and uncertainty can make people feel like they are spiraling. One in five Mainers seek treatment for anxiety or depression in a given year, and men are three times more likely to die by suicide,” Longley said. “We encourage Mainers to look out for each other and to tackle the issues surrounding mental health and wellness, and that includes supporting Maine’s commercial fishermen.”

The uncertainties of working on the water have been compounded for Maine's fishermen this year by the effect of COVID-19 on markets. Photo courtesy of the Bangor Daily News.

Other than safety, accidents, and fatalities, there are not a lot of statistics that quantify the impact of stress and the need for mental health support specifically among commercial fishermen. There are a few statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control that highlight the extreme stress and pressure that fishermen face because of the risks inherent in their occupation. Commercial fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States, with a fatality rate 29 times higher than the national average. The Northeast lobster fishery has the highest number of fatalities, with more deaths caused by falls overboard than vessel disasters. In contrast, the research and statistics, not to mention support, related to farmers’ mental health and wellness are abundant.

Acting chairman of the MCFA board and commercial fisherman from Chebeague Island Alex Todd says, “It’s important to me and my friends and family who go fishing that there are resources available that can help us deal with some of the challenges we are facing. There is so much we have to deal with right now and it’s really taking a toll on a lot of us. I think even just letting people know that some fishermen are pretty anxious and depressed right now is important.”

Because of the efforts from MCFA to highlight the need for mental health and wellness resources for fishermen and because more fishermen are vocalizing their increasing stress and concern, acknowledgement that opportunities need to be made available to fishermen is occurring. MCFA has received grants from the Fisher Charitable Trust and the Sewall Foundation to support access to mental health and wellness resources for Maine’s fishermen. We are using the funding to connect fishermen with mental health and wellness resources and professional counselors so they can access the critical support they need to stay emotionally resilient and healthy during this unprecedented and confusing time. Despite the necessity, nothing like this is happening for the fishing industry anywhere else in the United States.

Senator Susan Collins recently joined a bipartisan group of Senators in introducing legislation to expand telemental health services in rural areas. The Home-Based Telemental Health Care Act of 2020 would establish a grant program for health providers to expand telemental health services for those in rural populations working in the farming, forestry, and fishing industries.

Maine fishermen, like many small business owners in Maine, are worried about the potentially disastrous impacts of the pandemic on their livelihoods. This, coupled with the stress and volatility associated with managing a fishing business, is putting an excessive amount of pressure and worry on fishermen. Creating opportunities for fishermen to seek help, to find resources to learn about managing stress and trauma, to promote wellness, and to show fishermen support is a priority for the MCFA in its efforts to sustain Maine’s fishing communities for future generations.

To learn more about the support we are making available to fishermen, please Fishermen do not need to contact us; they can reach out directly to the counselors and resources that are listed on the website. If you or someone you love could use support, please reach out to NAMI Maine’s Helpline 622-5767 ext 1.


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