Below is an op-ed by Monique Coombs, Director of Communitiy Programs, originally printed in the Portland Press Herald on 12/16/2023.
In Dec. 2021, representatives of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and NAMI Maine published a column in the Portland Press Herald headlined: “We need more awareness of mental health stresses on Maine’s fishermen.”
This week, nearly two years to the day, Sens. Susan Collins, Edward Markey and Dan Sullivan introduced the Fishing Industry Safety, Health, and Wellness Improvement (FISH Wellness) Act to better address the range of occupational safety and health risks facing fishermen, including worker fatigue and substance use disorder.
MCFA is thankful to the senators for spearheading this effort, and to our colleagues at the Fishing Partnership Support Services and New England Young Fishermen’s Alliance who champion and advocate for efforts to support the health, well being and safety of commercial fishermen.
Mental health support services are crucial for fishermen due to the unique challenges and stressors they face in their profession. Fishing is not only physically demanding, but also involves long and unpredictable working hours, isolation, financial uncertainty and exposure to harsh environmental conditions. These factors can contribute to high levels of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues among fishermen.
For years, MCFA worked to establish a wellness program for fishermen. However, it wasn’t until the pandemic that we secured modest funding that enabled us to embark on initiatives aimed at enhancing mental health support for fishermen. Since then, we have continued to advocate for increased resources, worked towards destigmatizing mental health conversations within the industry, and began identifying avenues for comprehensive mental health assistance.
Through these dedicated efforts, MCFA’s Fishermen Wellness program now provides access to therapists for fishermen, offers cultural competency training to health care workers and students in health fields, and collaborates with partners like the Northeast Center and ManTherapy to develop outreach and communications on mental health and wellness tailored to fishermen.
To better understand why initiatives such as MCFA’s Fishermen Wellness program and the FISH Wellness Act are necessary, it’s important to note how incredibly complicated it is to manage a commercial fishing business, how dangerous the occupation of fishing is and how integral the ocean and fishing are to a fisherman’s identity. MCFA clarifies these factors for health care workers when offering cultural competency training.
Cultural competency training is a type of education and professional development designed to improve understanding, knowledge and skills in effectively working with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds – such as commercial fishing families.
For instance, an important point for healthcare workers to comprehend to establish trust with fishermen is that suggesting time off the water to address health concerns may not be appropriate unless absolutely necessary. While regulations and external challenges in operating a fishing business can be stressors, being on the water is often the primary stress reliever for many fishermen. Taking time away from fishing can potentially increase stress, as it means a loss of income and unmet family needs.
Moral injury is the emotional distress resulting from witnessing or participating in events that conflict with an individual’s moral or ethical beliefs, often involving betrayal or actions contrary to deeply held values. Originally identified in military contexts, this concept extends to various professions, commercial fishing among them.
In the fishing industry, mounting regulations, outdated rules, inefficient processes and slow scientific processes are constraining fishermen’s operations. When faced with challenges, fishermen often work harder to adapt, but when arbitrary constraints hinder their efforts to navigate these difficulties, they may experience symptoms such as fatigue, depression, stress and grief. Recognizing that many of Maine’s fishermen are grappling with moral injury, not just burnout, is crucial in developing effective support systems.
Addressing the mental health challenges faced by Maine’s commercial fishermen requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses legislative initiatives, targeted wellness programs and cultural competency training for health care providers. The introduction of FISH Wellness Act by Sens. Collins, Markey, and Sullivan signifies a significant step towards recognizing and addressing the occupational risks and health stresses in the fishing industry.
Read more about fishermen & mental health.
MCFA blogs about Fishermen Wellness with our partners at NAMI Maine HERE.
Safety Net: What's missing in mental health for fishermen (National Fisherman, 8/18/19)
Mental Health and the Modern Fisherman (Hakai Magazine, 3/16/2021)
If you are in need of support.
If you feel that things have piled up and you would like to talk to someone outside your family or circle of friends, please reach out to NAMI Maine for support. They would be happy to assist you in any way that they can. The NAMI Maine Helpline can be reached at 622-5767 x 1.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
If you need to apply for Medicaid, you can reach out to Oasis at 207-721-9277 or visit oasisfreeclinics.org. Oasis also offers free healthcare and mental services in the interim period while the application process is happening.
Maine Seacoast Mission can help fishing families in Downeast Maine find support and resources on a number of issues including mental health, substance use disorder, and food insecurity.
MCFA has a list of councelors available to speak with fishermen as well as funding support to help with the costs of initial visits. We want to help make it as easy as possible for fishermen to access support. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Together, we persevere.