Sailing the stormy seas of mental health

10 October is World Mental Health Day, an international day for global mental health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma. In the first of two articles, we take a look at how the challenges of life at sea have affected seafarers’ mental health for centuries, a subject which is explored in the Life on Board gallery at the Maritime Museum.

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Please note: this article discusses mental health, self harm and suicide. If you are affected by what have you read, please get in touch with one of the support services listed at the end of the article.

Don’t suffer in silence.

A long history

Mental health problems are far from new. For centuries we’ve known that the physical dangers of the sea are accompanied by a mental toll and myriad strange phenomena that can have a deleterious effect of the wellbeing of those who sail on it. Writing in 1815, Sir Gilbert Blaine, physician to the Prince Regent, reported that sailors were seven times more likely to be “maniacs” than the shore based population. Indeed there had been a privately run mental asylum in London from at least 1755 where the admiralty had been sending members of the Navy who became mentally ill. In his book 'Off the Deep End, a History of Madness at Sea', Nic Compton states that in the 19th century news accounts of sailors ‘going mad’ and threatening or attacking fellow crew, climbing the rigging and refusing to come down, or declaring themselves Christ, meant:

“the image of the ‘mad sailor’ became almost a cliché”

Our physical and mental health of course are deeply interconnected. Historically it has perhaps been even harder to see the dividing line, to know when symptoms indicative of a mental health problem are actually rooted in a physical injury or condition. In an era before modern medical advances though, often the best they could hope for was to treat the symptoms as they presented.

Captain Porter's journals

The journals of Captain Porter, a young sea captain who sailed out of Liverpool in the 1860s and 1870s, contain the account of the tragic loss of the ship’s cook. Sadly the man isn’t named in the journals, but he displays many of the erratic behaviours mentioned above.

“He has taken such a notion in his head since he has become insane, to term himself, Christ and he would do nothing without he asked his Heavenly Father, first, and that we could not hurt him as he was Christ. I was no one at all, he was everything, and that he was sent to preach to us and all such faith, but now he has changed wonderfully, for he Curses and swears most fearfully which is not natural to him…” [sic]

The cook’s behaviour progressed to be extremely difficult and even violent. He got hold of some boiling water and tried to scald other members of the crew. He tried more than once to jump overboard and so a watch was set on him day and night. There seem to have been other signs of self-harm too as the captain describes him trying to bite "a piece out of his arm".

Caring for crew in the 19th century

With no doctor on board the young captain was responsible for the physical wellbeing of the crew, becoming as he phrased it in his journals a "jack of all trades". This is not too dissimilar to the practice on many merchant ships today. Any urgent medical treatment has to be carried out by ships officers, who will have had some medical training as part of their qualification but are not doctors. Even today getting emergency help at sea is a difficult proposition, for Captain Porter it was impossible - he was on his own.

Porter tried various things to help, including giving the cook "strengthening medicine" and purgatives, bathing his feet in mustard and warm water, and on one occasion even bloodletting. The captain did not know what had caused the illness in his crewman, guessing at issues like the heat, Typhus, or inflammation on the brain, and becoming increasingly concerned and anxious himself.

“the fellow has so worried one that he has made me quite unwell myself, and we can get no rest for Him, as for peace of mind it’s out of the question” [sic]

Eventually, having been ill for around two weeks, the cook slipped from the men watching him when he was allowed on deck for some exercise, threw himself over the side and was drowned.

“he was a man that appeared to have something on his Mind that troubled him much, which was the cause of his insanity I believe. He has left nothing behind him, to trace his friends by, all that we know is, that he is under a False name, and that he has run away from his Wife, and he belongs to Portsmouth.” [sic]

A compassionate captain

The captain’s helplessness in the face of the cook’s illness and eventual death is likely familiar to anyone who has ever watched someone they care for struggle. The man was more than just the contemporary newspapers’ ‘cliché’, he was a human being in distress and, though in an age where mental health was often stigmatised and feared, Porter tries to treat him with compassion. He is forced to restrain him and have him watched over by crewmen, which he can hardly spare from other duties. The crew are disturbed, and at least once endangered, by the cook’s actions, but the captain, despite suffering himself, shows no sign of ceasing to try and help, writing in his journal:

“I pity him from my Heart.” [sic]

Porter did everything he could to help his crewman and yet it still ended in tragedy. Whether the man meant to take his own life is unclear. It is uncertain what he was suffering with, whether the initial cause of his illness lay in his mental or physical health. Porter himself though may well have understood better than most how interlinked these were. Porter struggles throughout the journals with constant worries and low spirits. He recounts an occasion of him seeing a doctor because he had "felt so unwell of late". The doctor advised him that if he stopped worrying so much about the ship and himself he would "get right again". It is advice that has some sense behind it, likely the Captain’s anxieties were making him ill, but it perhaps also demonstrates a lack of understanding of the conditions Porter was faced with. There is still more than enough danger and uncertainty in seafaring today to cause the kind of anxiety and low mood that Porter described.

Something else there is still more than enough of is the stigma surrounding mental health, Porter’s compassion for his crewman still feels like something we could learn from. It feels important that even when the cook became a danger to those around him, people who were strangers brought together simply by circumstance as is not unusual in seafaring, they still tried to do their best for him. We cannot ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ the mental health problems of those around us, but we can all extend compassion and patience, and hope that, should we ever need it, it will be extended to us in return.

Information and support

You can find out more about the issues facing seafarers in our Life on Board gallery.  If you or a loved one are struggling with your mental health you can find help and support on these websites:

Seafarers can find help aimed particularly at them at:

SeafarerHelp run a free, confidential, multilingual helpline for seafarers and their families, offering support with whatever issues they may be facing.

Lead image: Moyune in a tropical storm (55.249). The sea is a challenging and dangerous environment. In this painting from our maritime collections you can see the crew at the bow of the Moyune making sure everything is secure until the storm has passed.