Bringing Mental Health Supports to Fishing Communities
On average since 2010, the U.S. Coast Guard reports five fatalities and 19 sunken commercial fishing vessels each year in New England and New York. In addition to facing many dangers to their physical health – the CDC calls commercial fishing “one of the most hazardous occupations in the United States with a fatality rate 29 times higher than the national average” – fishermen are also particularly vulnerable to behavioral health challenges.
There’s constant threat of injury or death while out working long hours on the water – even when no one is hurt, this incessant worry is a source of chronic stress. When an accident occurs, the impact can be deep and lasting.
In the tragic cases where a life is lost, a body may never be recovered from the sea; if crewmates do bring the remains of a lost fisherman back home, they may have to spend days traveling back to port.
Jim McCauley, LICSW, is the co-founder of the Riverside Trauma Center – a part of MindWise Innovations – and has led our work with the Fishing Partnership since 2016.
Throughout our partnership, our team has led 6-10 major responses annually including three boat sinkings and 2-3 deaths due to falls overboard each year. We also present 2-3 trainings a year to Navigators on topics ranging from suicide prevention to psychological first aid.
As a clinician, Jim specializes in trauma postvention, suicide clusters, and developing and supporting suicide prevention coalitions. Here he shares insights into our work within the commercial fishing industry.
Fishing Boats as Second Homes
Many fishermen come to think of their boats as second homes – accidents involving the loss of a boat can be highly traumatic events, especially as they add more uncertainty to fishermen’s lives. Further uncertainty comes from the industry being tied to federal regulations which can change at short notice, undermining fishermen’s livelihoods.
The Impact of Trauma
The experience of living through traumatic events often results in symptoms of post-traumatic stress. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a type of anxiety characterized by symptoms which are directly related to the traumatic event and is recognized as a mental health condition in the DSM-5. A traumatic event is one where an individual or community experience a level of stress so intense that it is overwhelming to manage and results in overwhelming demands placed upon the physiological system leading to a profound felt sense of: Loss of Control, Vulnerability, Immobilization.
There are different degrees of trauma, and an event that traumatizes one individual may not have a similar impact upon the next. While trauma affects everyone differently, common symptoms associated with unresolved trauma and post-traumatic stress include:
- Intense feelings of sadness, fear, and/or shame
- Difficulty sleeping
- Being in a constant state of hypervigilance
- Avoiding reminders of a painful event
A stark indicator of the impact of all these potential traumas is the suicide rate among fishermen: according to CDC data, it’s among the highest for all industries in the US. To cap it all off, “there’s zero self-care on a boat.”
Enter our Partnership with the Fishing Partnership
Fishing Partnership Support Services is a non-profit organization that “bring[s] critical support services and programs to more than 20,000 New England fishing families.” Recognizing that fishermen are workers “without a safety net,” Fishing Partnership is a sort of human resources department for the industry.
They offer hands-on safety and survival trainings, workshops and assistance for improving the economic security of fishing families, and a range of health and wellness programs including substance use and recovery support.
In 2016, Fishing Partnership began working with Riverside Trauma Center, part of MindWise Innovations, to add mental health services and support to their offerings. The Trauma Center’s work with fishermen has two main foci: preparing Fishing Partnership Navigators to cope with a range of behavioral health issues and being on-call 24/7 to respond to crises.
Counseling for Dudes That Have Gone Overboard
The Fishing Partnership employs teams of Navigators embedded within fishing communities to assist fishermen and their families with a wide range of activities from enrolling in health insurance plans to bringing preventative healthcare like screenings and vaccinations right to the harbor. The Trauma Center presents 2-3 trainings a year to Navigators on topics ranging from suicide prevention to psychological first aid.
In addition to training and working with the Navigators, Trauma Center clinicians are always available to respond after traumatic events that affect the fishing community. They work to stabilize and assess the needs of impacted individuals, to connect and refer fisherman to other services and resources as needed, and to support the families of fishermen. Since 2016, the Trauma Center has led 6-10 major responses annually including at least three boat sinkings and 2-3 deaths due to falls overboard each year.