With 1 in 4 people within the UK presenting mental health issues and this expected to rise exponentially post COVID-19 due to isolation, decreased job, financial security and concern for loved ones resulting in stress, anxiety and depression we decided to talk with Chris Lemons who told us “Isolation and dealing with the mental difficulties which come with being confined are issues I am definitely familiar with.”
Chris thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, you are an experienced saturation sea diver can you tell us a little bit about the mental health aspects of the job?
“I have long felt that the diving is the easy part of the job, an opportunity to pop the cork on the mental pressures and strains of living in such an unusually claustrophobic environment for 28 days at a time.
The principal challenge is without doubt the nature of the confinement itself. Once the door is closed and the chamber is pressurised, often to well in excess of 100 metres, there is no escape. The death of a parent, a burst appendix, a sudden desperation to breathe fresh air; none of these things will allow you to circumnavigate the days of decompression required to return to the surface. It’s an overly flattering analogy, but it is true to say that it is quicker to get back from the surface of the moon than it is from being in a Saturation system pressurised to 150 metres.
This can undoubtedly bring pressures to bear on ones mental health. The feelings of isolation can often be palpable, and the absence of an ability to exit the situation if you feel uncomfortable in any way, can leave you feeling caged and helpless.
To this you can add the almost unique pressures that come with living in extremely close confines with other human beings, whilst simultaneously having every second of your day monitored by the watchful eyes of the systems cameras. Need to have a private phone call with people at home? Forget it. Not comfortable with having someone watch you take a shower or go to the toilet? Better find another job. Privacy is almost non-existent, and there is no escaping the five other men who are all sleeping within an arms-reach of you, even if you can’t stand them.
The standard pressures which can affect our mental health at home are also exacerbated whilst locked in the chambers. Because the gas we breathe is principally made up helium, and because the pressure has an affect on our vocal cords, we can be almost unintelligible over the phone, making speaking to people at home very difficult. Problems such as paying a bill, resolving a conflict with a loved one or consoling an upset son or daughter can prove almost impossible, and this feeling of helplessness can become overwhelming.
To all of this you can add the pressures of the job itself. Our ship usually has over 100 people on board, who along with the army of engineers and staff on shore are there with the sole purpose of delivering two divers to the seabed to complete the work. Combine this with the financial pressures of a boat which is being hired for £150,000 per day, and every one watching the every move of your hands on screens throughout the vessel, and the toll of the mental strain can quickly add up.”
What kind of techniques do you use to maintain your mental health during operations?
“Principally I make attempts to normalise my environment as much as possible. There is no escape from the confinement of the decompression chambers, and so you have to be able to accept that and make a concerted effort to make the best of it. Whilst the nature of the work already enforces a pre-determined routine on ones day, I find it helpful to ensure that I follow my own personal routine as much as possible. Small disciplines such as getting out of bed in the morning to have a cup of tea and watch the news, having a time to stretch or exercise, or taking 15 minutes to do a crossword, all give the day structure and some element of normality.
The nature of the confinement could potentially be a little overwhelming, and so I find it is very important to maintain a positive frame of mind. I make a concerted effort not to count the number of days left, particularly during the early stages, and instead I concentrate on smaller milestones such as getting through the first week, first 10 days etc. As mercenary as it sounds, I sometimes count the money I’m earning rather than the days I have left, simply to try and a put a positive spin on a timeframe which could otherwise appear a little depressing.
I also always try and use the period in Saturation as an opportunity. Rather than think of it as being locked up for a month, I tell myself that this is a chance to learn a new skill, read some interesting books, write that novel, or even just catch up on the sleep that a 3 year old deprives me of at home…
I find that one of the key elements to coping is to make use of the people around you. Some divers will cope with being locked up by confining themselves to their bunk with the curtain closed as much as possible. I have always found it helpful to force myself to go and talk to people, partially for the sense of normality that this can bring, but principally because it can be cathartic to discuss the stresses and strains of captivity with others in the same situation. The solidarity of people who you quickly find are suffering in similar ways to yourself, can be very comforting and ease the feelings of loneliness and isolation that can quickly develop if you choose to shut yourself away.”
Are there any specific requirements (tests, assessments etc) either from legislative or employer perspective that someone must complete in regard to mental health?
“The medical testing of divers is fairly rigorous, partly due to the physical nature of the job, and partly because access to medical facilities and personnel is severely restricted during our periods of confinement. As such there is a thorough annual medical, which includes a broad range of physical examinations, including ECG’s, assessment of lung capacity, hearing, fitness etc. We also undertake a truncated version of this medical examination on site, in the 6 hours prior to entering into Saturation. However, at no point in any of this is there any element of testing or assessment of mental health. As with many professions of this nature, the diving industry appears to be behind the curve when it comes to enlightenment on this issue. People often assume that Saturation diving will have some form of adverse affect on your long term physical health, but I have long felt that the damage being done is far more likely to be to ones Mental Health. The long periods of confinement undoubtably have an effect, and some of the older divers certainly show signs of being institutionalised.”
You went through an emotionally traumatic experience during a specific operation could you tell us a little more?
“Back in September of 2012 I was involved in a diving incident aboard a Dive Support Vessel called the Bibby Topaz. My colleague and I were working on the Huntingdon Manifold which is located about 90 miles due East of Aberdeen, at a depth of 91 metres. At around 10pm, and in the midst of a 35 knot wind and 5 metre seas, the Topaz suffered a catastrophic single point failure of its Dynamic Positioning Computer. This is a system which allows the ship to maintain position over a particular point on the seabed, so that the divers can work safely without fear of being dragged around by the boat. With this failure, the Topaz began to drift at the mercy of the wind and waves, pulling my colleague Dave and I along with it. Unfortunately, my umbilical (a series of intertwined hoses which provide us with Breathing Gas, Heat, Light and Cameras) became snagged on the exterior of the sub-sea structure. I effectively became the anchor to an 8000 tonne ship, and there was only ever going to be one winner in that situation. My umbilical duly snapped, leaving me stranded in the absolute darkness of the seabed with only the emergency supply of gas that we carry on our back left to breathe. We estimate that this supply lasted for around seven to eight minutes, but unfortunately it took nearly forty minutes for the crew to regain control of the boat and be able to come back and rescue me. After a lonely few minutes on the seabed, thinking that my death was imminent, I slipped into unconsciousness. Miraculously, nearly 40 minutes later, I was dragged back from the seabed by my colleague Dave, hauled into the diving bell and resuscitated, seemingly unharmed.”
How have you learned to deal/cope with the experience?
“To some extent I have always tried to be pragmatic about it, although I think it actually took several years before I began to properly reflect on what happened. At the time I think we were riding on a wave of Euphoria, having extracted ourselves from what seemed like an impossible position, and slightly oblivious to the magnitude of what had taken place. I think we were perhaps slightly more concerned about getting back on the horse, rather than taking any time to properly consider how it had affected us. It was only really during the making of the film ‘Last Breath’ that I was almost forced to reflect on how it had affected not just me, but all those involved both on the ship that night, and my friends and family at home.
To some extent coping with it has been a necessity, as this is my profession and not to do so would mean being unable to pay the mortgage. I often try and put it into perspective by telling myself that essentially I emerged completely unharmed, my suffering was fleeting, and the number of people who suffer and cope with traumas far worse than this are legion.
In many ways, the unusual nature of what happened to me, and the environment in which it happened, have proven the key to my being able to deal relatively comfortably with what happened. Because it is a story that interests people, I have spent the best part of the last 8 years recounting the tale which has prevented me from bottling anything up or repressing any potential post traumatic trauma. I am lucky to be surrounded both personally and professionally by strong and supportive people, and the frank discussions I have had with all of them have undoubtably allowed me to minimise any mental repercussions.
I think I’m also lucky in that the nature of my job gives me the confidence to be able to talk reasonably openly about my feelings and anxieties, without ever really worrying about whether people might consider me weak or inferior, so I am thankful for that.”
Do you experience any forms of mental health issues due to the experience?
“I don’t think I have, but I’m possibly not the best person to judge. I feel as though in many ways it has been a positive experience in my life, and I never really consider myself to have suffered a trauma. I do feel that I have a more acute awareness of death, and it is certainly something I think about more these days, although age may also play a part in that. I like to think that I am reasonably stoic in nature, but that has a downside in that it is possible that I suffer without even realising it. Overall though, It’s not something that I regret happening in my life, and in many ways I feel it has made me stronger both mentally and professionally.”
Due to COVID19 the general public is currently undergoing lockdown which is creating social isolation, do you think there are any specific issues we should be aware of as a result of long periods in isolation?
“There is little doubt that prolonged periods in isolation can have a significant bearing on ones mental health. The inability to have direct contact with loved ones, and the massive benefits this can have on our mental well-being, is undoubtably at the top of the list. A sudden lack of routine or purpose to ones days can also prove very challenging, which can also lead to a sense of disappointment or worthlessness if you don’t manage to fill that time productively. The removal of ones liberty and freedom, something we often all take for granted, can often prove more distressing than you may have realised. The other danger is, I feel, that the longer lockdown continues, the more people will get used to it, and the harder it will become to return to the chaos of normal life.”
Do you have any advice on ways to cope?
“There are many clear parallels between the current lockdown and life confined to a hyperbaric chamber, and therefore many of the coping mechanisms I suspect are the same.
Routine is king. Lockdown can quickly feel like groundhog day, so it is important that even though you don’t necessarily have to get up in the morning and have a shower, you do so. Build or timetable a structure to your day to avoid drifting into directionless periods of inactivity, all of which can have a detrimental effect on your confidence and mental well being.
Set yourself targets for the day. Even if you don’t achieve them, it will give your day purpose and focus.
Try and treat the experience as a positive. This is an opportunity to learn new things that you may never otherwise have. The modern world is a frantic one, so look at this as a rare chance to reflect and refresh. Take the time to get yourself healthy, to read those books that you have always meant to read, to get the garden looking pretty or repaint the walls of the flat. Tell yourself that you will come out of this experience and not view it as having been wasted time.
Communicate. You suddenly have time, so use it to catch up with people. We are all in this together so it can be comforting to take solace in others going through the same things, and to share how we are all feeling. There is no disgrace in feeling isolated or lonely, because you very much are not alone in feeling that. Talking to people can quickly bring perspective and humour to the situation.
Try and enjoy it. How often can you watch Only Fools and Horses all afternoon and not feel guilty about it?”
Brett Townsley & Chris Lemons.
The documentary Last Breath can be found here https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80215139
It truly is a remarkable watch.