Mental health support for fishers funded as seafood industry’s crisis revealed

More than $1 million has been allocated to Australia’s commercial fishing industry after revelations fishers are experiencing…

Mental health support for fishers funded as seafood industry’s crisis revealed

More than $1 million has been allocated to Australia’s commercial fishing industry after revelations fishers are experiencing mental health issues at twice the rate of the average population.

Norm Hedditch has been fishing commercially since the 1980s but ask him his worst day on the job and he can cite it straight off.

It was two years ago in Darwin Harbour when he lost one of his beloved crew members.

“One of our crews swam for a dinghy that got loose. And unfortunately, in that scenario, he drowned,” he said.

“So we all went through a very tough period just with our grief and everything.”

His daughter was also working in the business looking after crew and logistics and said there was so much guilt and hurt.

“The guys that witnessed it, they definitely relived the incident over and over and over again,” she said.

Mental health support for fishers funded as seafood industry’s crisis revealed
Fishers often live and work in remote areas, which means they have reduced access to primary health services.(ABC Landline)

“And it wasn’t anyone’s fault. There’s no need to put blame on it to anyone or anything or even do the whole, ‘What should I have done differently that day?’

“Because when you start doing that and those questions and putting yourself into that mindset, you can get into some really dark place.”

Crisis support within hours

What helped pull them and the rest of the crew from that dark place was a crisis support counsellor who was there within hours.

“It definitely helped us because without any support, well, you just keep mulling it over in your mind and thinking about it,” Mr Hedditch said.

Photo of a man smiling infront of a boat.
Norm Hedditch has been fishing since the 1980s.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

“Getting to sit down with somebody that’s experienced in counselling was very beneficial to all of us.”

The crisis response was part of a pilot program set up by Seafood Industry Australia that is running in Darwin, Lakes Entrance and Newcastle.

Program leader Jo Marshall said it was the type of help that once would not have been even considered.

“What we do have is a person we know who will then connect us to crisis support very quickly,” she said.

“We’ve seen that support make an enormous difference for some fishers and their families in the community that have been through some terrible situations.”

But it is not just in times of obvious crisis that fishers need help.

A large survey of the seafood industry conducted by Deakin University and the University of Tasmania painted a disturbing picture of the mental health of people working in and around it.

Photo of fishers on a boat.
A third of fishers with poor mental health do not seek out health professionals due to fears they will not be understood.(ABC Landline)

Worryingly, a third of fishers who were suffering mental health distress had not reached out for support, in many cases because they felt health professionals would not understand them.

Reduced access to primary health services

Mortality, disease and health risk factors are already higher because fishers often live and work in rural and remote communities, which means they have reduced access to primary health services.

But there is also a mental stress, which is more nuanced.

There are constant challenges to fishery management, governance uncertainty and the security of access to fisheries.

Photo of people carrying buckets of fish.
In recent years the trade has copped some big challenges relating to fishery management and governance uncertainty.(ABC Landline)

“Our fishers understand these things need to happen, they want a sustainable and long-term industry as much as anybody else,” Ms Marshall said.

“But the reality is that requires a lot of change, involves an awful lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty is a massive driver of stress, psychological distress and ultimately can lead to mental illness.”

Over two years, $1.5 million will be spent to establish up to 50 more hubs in other parts of the country to look after the wellbeing of commercial fishers and seafood workers.

Toni Hedditch has now become a trusted advocate, a role set up by the initiative for fishers to talk to their own people to get help.

Photo of a young woman next to a boat.
Mr Hedditch’s daughter Toni joined the business during the pandemic, starting a fish job with the company.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

“We all went through a mental health first aid training course which was really beneficial,” she said.

“It should go pair-and-pair with physical first aid. It’s just how to deal with people in crisis right there at the moment and how to maybe have some of those conversations if you can see someone’s not feeling the best.”

Forty per cent of respondents said they felt their doctor did not understand the pressure of the fishing industry.

Francis Davis is also an advocate and started on the docks more than 22 years ago.

“You’re [considered] weak if you can’t ‘handle it’ … that’s the stigma we’re slowly changing,” she said.

“And because I’ve been on the ground and fairly well-known on a ground level, on a shore level, people do come and talk to you. They might think they are talking about feelings or mental health.”

Photo of a group of men and women standing in front of a boat.
Stay Afloats’ Jo Fisher talks with a crew pulled in to unload at the Darwin Duck Pond.(ABC Landline: Kristy O’Brien)

But change is also wanted beyond the sea level.

Industry leaders are urging decision makers to consider mental health when making policy reforms and decisions, with a strongly reported association between poor mental health and “modern uncertainties”.

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