Calls grow for mandatory recording of suicides at sea

The UK government has published a 30-page report looking into one of shipping’s darkest secrets, suicides at sea, with a number of recommendations to help fix a grimly underreported scourge plaguing the industry.

Calls are growing to make recording suicides mandatory, but confidential, with the report discussing targeting so called “cowboy” states and organisations that hide cases of suicide.

Other suggestions include having a centralised database where all statistics on suicide among seafarers are retained, while another idea is for shipping companies to have a single body that provides guidance for how suicides should be recorded and what is classed as a suicide.

There hasn’t been a single agreed international framework for recording suicides at sea, which has led many to believe that suicides remain underreported

“Better data on the number of suicides – even if imperfect – can help address the prior causes of poor mental health,” states the report which was penned by Ipsos for the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

“There are a lot of cowboy flag states out there that I’m concerned about…that don’t have robust reporting in place,” one shipowner interviewed for the study said.

The variety of approaches to how flags record deaths has led to a particularly “murky picture” and contributed to the “fatalistic view of the near-impossible challenge of accurately collecting data on suicide among seafarers”, the report states.

As well as flag states not reporting suicides correctly, the report points out that crew will often be driven by an unwillingness to create further trauma for a victim’s family, especially in cases where there is religious or societal stigma associated with suicide. The issue of money from a life insurance policy being unlikely to be paid in the event of suicide was also brought up.

“Under the insurance for the ship, if someone dies onboard the family gets about $150,000 in death in service payment. If they commit suicide the family get nothing. So that has to be a factor in it as well, that seafarers circle the wagons to make sure that the family’s looked after,” one shipmanager interviewed by Ipsos said.

Participants in the survey suggested that there are significant discrepancies in how certain terms are applied in individual life insurance and P&I insurance. Addressing this perception, right or wrong, was considered one way to start addressing issues of under-reporting suicide among seafarers.

Underreporting is the plague of shipping

“Allow for suicide to be an insured risk and the data would clarify itself very quickly,” one respondent claimed.

Robert Courts, Britain’s maritime minister, commented: “Despite evidence that mental health and seafarer suicide are serious issues in maritime, the data is patchy. Historically, there hasn’t been a single agreed international framework for recording suicides at sea, which has led many to believe that suicides remain underreported.”

Speaking with Splash today, David Hammond, the CEO of the NGO Human Rights at Sea, said: “We must have a globally accepted positive reporting requirement in international maritime law at best, or regulatory policy at least, for every port, coastal and flag state to record suicides and attempted suicides for centralised collation.”

Hammond said transparency must be at the heart of this process which must include details of the flag state, vessel, owner, manager and surrounding circumstances.

“This data is usually held behind the corporate veil but it is needed in the public domain to affect law and policy change, and act as a deterrent effect,” Hammond said, adding: “Suicide or attempted suicide is a failure in crew management to look after and look out for the individual who is, or may become vulnerable, for whatever reason.”

Captain Kuba Szymanski, secretary-general of shipmanagement association InterManager and chairman of the Seafarers Hospital charity, told Splash: “Underreporting is the plague of shipping.” This was something that was reflected not just in the recording of suicides, but in other accidents such as lifeboat ones or enclosed spaces deaths, Szymanski said.

This month the MCA in the UK is launching a Wellbeing at Sea Tool that provides practical advice for seafarers and helps organisations monitor their employees’ overall wellbeing onboard. The MCA has also published two books on the matter in consultation with unions, shipowners and maritime charities.

UK Chamber of Shipping policy director Tim Springett said: “The creation of an international register of deaths at sea will not be without it challenges, not least in terms of administration. But it will be an important step in information sharing alongside the launch of the Wellbeing at Sea tool to allow everyone to help deliver better mental health at sea.”

Research by Yale University commissioned two years ago by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust found 20% of seafarers surveyed had suicidal ideation.

“While comparative data is limited, this analysis suggests that seafarers have higher rates of depression than other working populations, emphasising the need for appropriate mental health policies and management strategies in this isolated, vulnerable, and globally essential workforce,” the study stated. 

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.


  1. There has never been any incentive for shipowners to report suicides. With the retreat of established
    world ship-owning and the Regulations that controlled them we have lost even that coverage. ln 1967 l witnessed the suicide of a Second Cook whose wife had taken the children, the house and left him. We were at least 15 days from a UK port. He jumped head first out of the Owner’s Cabin headlong down to the corner of a hatch cover. We couldn’t save him. But l was very impressed by the compassion shown by authorities both on board and ashore. The Coroner allowed us to bury him at sea, and a full Inquest was held on arrival in Wales. Of course that was while the ship was registered under the old U.K. flag. I wonder what is in place today under the current British flag of convenience.

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