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Guest Column: What does "mental health support for fishermen" mean?

Monique Coombs is the director of community programs at the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association Image courtesy: MCFA

I can’t hear very well in my left ear, and my husband can’t hear well at all in his left ear either. I lost some of my hearing because I had so many ear infections when I was little (and maybe attended too many concerts) and Herman was born with some hearing loss. But he is definitely not the only fisherman who suffers from hearing impairment.

It sucks when you are in a meeting or in a crowded room and you can’t hear everything. It’s already awkward and uncomfortable being in a meeting when you prefer to be on the water, but if you also can’t hear the people talking around you, everything becomes increasingly annoying and totally irritating.

Talking with fishermen about how to prevent hearing loss is not super helpful because for so many fishermen, that ship has already sailed. What is useful for fishermen is sharing ideas to help feel more comfortable in crowded rooms. This works two ways: Any organization setting up meetings with fishermen should be thoughtful about how a room is organized to best allow for people to easily hear and communicate and fishermen can learn little tricks (like simply pointing to their ear) that help them communicate to others if they can’t hear.

Something like this is an example of mental health support intended specifically for commercial fishermen. It’s learning what mental health concerns and illnesses (like hearing loss or depression) are predominant among fishermen, and then finding the tools and coping mechanisms that are appropriate to a fisherman’s lifestyle to help support wellness.

Organizations like the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA) cannot develop this type of support on its own. We can facilitate conversations with fishermen and we can help communicate to fishing communities, but we are also dependent on our partners like NAMI Maine and Sweetser to learn communication techniques to talk about mental health, to be able to connect fishermen with professional help and support, and to work with them to make sure the solutions and coping mechanisms that are created match the actual needs of fishermen and the particulars of their line of work.

There are a lot of programs that exist for farmers and first responders, but MCFA wants to collaborate with our partners to create ones that are just for fishermen.

Fishermen are feeling an immense amount of stress because of looming offshore wind energy development, major regulatory changes to the lobster industry, and increasing restrictions. For someone like an employee in a retail store or a marketing professional at an ad agency, job insecurity is usually temporary. For fishermen, the cumulative impact of all the things weighing on the future of fishing businesses is like living with job insecurity all the time. According to one report, “The stress and anxiety associated with job insecurity can lead to biological regulation of the release of stress hormones being disrupted, jeopardizing the body’s immune system, and affecting the health and wellbeing of workers.”

There is very little data that exist to support the need for mental health advocacy in the fishing industry. The data that do exist from the Centers for Disease Control report that fishing, especially the Northeast groundfish industry, is one of the deadliest civilian jobs in the United States. That fact alone should be enough to illuminate the need to make mental health resources more readily available to fishermen within their own communities.

Here are some facts that do exist: - Men represent an astounding 78% off all suicides in the United States. - 90% of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder, substance abuse problem, or both. - Working-aged men (25-54 years old) account for the largest number of suicide deaths in the U.S. These statistics and a lot of helpful information can be found on ManTherapy.com.

Fishing can be an incredibly isolating occupation. Aspects of fishing are monotonous; fishermen endure often grueling working conditions and a heavy workload (literally). They feel like they have little ability to control the future of their businesses in the face of new regulations and negative coverage in the media. All these factors have the potential to affect a fisherman’s mental health and well-being. (And this does not even include the day-to-day stresses of owning and operating a small business.)

Mental stress can isolate and debilitate anyone, and fishermen are not immune Image courtesy: J. Cushman

Nationally women have a higher overall rate of depression but in men depression is more often undiagnosed and untreated. This is because of things like the stigma associated with mental illnesses and a culture of masculinity which prevents fishermen from acknowledging the need for or seeking help. While women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression, men are less likely to even visit their doctor for mental health concerns because they have less mental health information specific to their demographic. This may be why the suicide rate of men is much higher.

Repetitive-use injuries, fatigue, PTSD, strain, poor diets, tension headaches, even financial planning are all topics that fall under the umbrella of wellness. MCFA hopes to bridge the gap between fishermen and opportunities for them to seek mental health support in their communities.

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