Sailors, isolation and mental health

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While researching the lives of seafarers for the Life on Board gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum, I wrote about a romantic story from the journals of young Captain William Porter, from the 1860s. He was dearly missing his wife, Bess, when he discovered, weeks out to sea, that she’d hidden a letter to him among his belongings.

This sweet story about William and Bess was not however what had drawn me to the journals in the first place. It was a rather less happy strand to his writing that had caught my eye on the summary transcript. I had been researching in the Archives Centre for historic references to struggles with mental health, or simply the loneliness and isolation we know are often a part of life at sea.

In the summary for William’s journals there were certainly mentions of loneliness, but also repeated references to worry about a variety of things and a note of a New Year’s Eve entry that particularly spoke about his state of mind. The entry in question was this one:

“Sunday, Dec. 31st 1865. – Another year has flown, Another year nearer to our last, solemn thoughts these to think upon, especially if we were to look upon it as the last one are to enjoy here, and how badly we have used it. With myself it has been so I know, for the past year has been spent with me, in vain repinings over things I have had no control, Anxious of mind, with little recreation to relive the mind, giving cause for great depression of Spirits, - all to the injury of my poor soul I fear, for I have neglected that which I should have sought most after. I wish I could look more upon the bright side of things, and think less of things in future, and more of things present.” [sic]

There’s a clear sense here of a man really struggling and becoming quite self-critical. Reading through the journals, it’s easy to see contributing factors to his state of mental unease: missing his wife, crew members becoming sick, poor weather making their passage difficult and causing delays. On an earlier voyage in 1864 (possibly only his second voyage in command) he remarked:

“I find I have to be jack of all Trades, painter, Carpenter, Engineer, Docter , Capt. …”[sic]

In this entry you get the impression of someone feeling slightly out of their depth. With no doctor on board, William was trying to treat sick members of his crew as best he could but he was struggling with no support. Then, as is still much the case now, the ship was a self-contained world with only the resources they took on board with them, meaning William had to turn his hand to whatever roles they found themselves lacking.

Later in that same voyage, after delays from poor weather and having seen a member of his crew slowly become increasingly ill and irrational until they threw themselves overboard, William made the decision to see a doctor whilst in port at St Helena. He states in his journal that his reason for this is that he had “felt so unwell of late” but the advice of the doctor suggests a connection between his almost constant worry and anxiety and his state of health:

“I seen the Doctor he gave me a Bottle of Medicine and some Pills, and told me I was to give over thinking so much about the Ship and myself, and that then I should get all right, again…”[sic]

To a modern reading the doctor seems to be telling William that dwelling on his anxieties is making him ill. Indeed he seems to have received a more sympathetic response from the doctor than we might have anticipated from the time period. The advice to stop worrying is not perhaps the most useful but there is at least an acknowledgement of a connection between the rumination on things that make William anxious and the state of his health.

Interestingly a doctor today might well advise William to try writing his feelings down, to keep a journal and see if getting things off his chest and on to the page helped. I do find myself wondering if William found any comfort from his journals. What struck me most throughout all the journals though was a simple, underlined, remark made on 2nd April 1865:

“It’s alarming to look Forward therefore I must only think of the present.”

This sense of dread of what might be lurking in the future is likely familiar to many who have struggled with their mental health. It’s impossible for me to make a mental health diagnosis of a historic figure; that is a field fraught with issues even for those who are qualified in mental health. However I certainly think it is fair to state from these entries how unhappy and troubled the young captain was during this period of his life, and that the circumstances of his time at sea had a clear impact upon this.

Reading his journals I got the impression of a man who was homesick, anxious, and slightly overwhelmed, likely all contributing to his obvious low spirits. Having been charmed by his love story, I was touched deeply by the distress also revealed in these journals.

Accounts like this remind us that mental health is not a modern issue; it is not a product of the 21st century. However, we are much more aware of mental health these days - help is more readily available and we’re working on reducing the stigma that people have long felt went alongside mental health issues.

Seafarers still face many of the same concerns that William did. Separation from loved ones, anxieties from being at the mercy of the weather at sea, the knowledge that should something go wrong or someone become ill that it is much harder to summon help than it would be on land. Fortunately organisations such as ISWAN (International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network), Seafarers UK and many others are working to produce literature, provide support, and point seafarers in the direction of help when they need it. There is a concerted effort to try to provide advice on wellbeing and health that could help all seafarers, as well as services available for those who find themselves struggling.

If you are struggling with mental health, help is available. Please believe me when I say you are not alone. Anyone can find further help, information and advice on these websites:

And 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.