Cases of self-harm at sea increase

Cases of self-harm at sea are on the increase as the months stretch by without a global solution to the crew change crunch.

While high profile cases have tended to focus on cruiseships, where staff are less accustomed to being at sea for so long, there is growing evidence that crew on merchant ships have entered a new dangerous phase with multiple reports of mental breakdowns.

Steven Jones, founder of the Seafarer Happiness Index, said reports he was receiving felt like a “dam about to break”.

“There is real tension, stress, frustration and annoyance building up. None of which feels like it can end well without the obvious solution of crew changes,” Jones said.

Martin Foley, CEO of Stellar Maris confirmed to Splash that his charity has been involved in a number of incidents involving self-harm in the past few weeks, in the UK and overseas.

“Many seafarers are confined to their vessels whilst awaiting news from their company. They are fearful they will lose their jobs, some having little to do but plenty of time to worry,” Foley said.

Splash has also heard of incidents in recent weeks of crew intentionally self-harming as a desperate way to get off ship. Other reports of ship sabotage by frustrated seafarers have also emerged.

International Transport Workers’ Federation general secretary Steve Cotton told Splash: “We have serious concerns about keeping seafarers onboard for such a long time. This directly correlates into feelings of anxiety, isolation and fear. We are extremely worried about the mental wellbeing of those at sea for so long.”

Ben Bailey, director of advocacy for The Mission to Seafarers, said he was keen to see medical officers onboard become skilled in mental health first aid and also suicide awareness.

“A company can have all the EAPs it needs, but it’s often the crew who are required to deal with the immediate situation,” Bailey said, adding that the industry might also need to revisit STCW guidelines to ensure they include mental health training.

Captain Rajesh Unni, founder of Singapore shipmanager Synergy Group, said his company’s confidential helpline, iCall, open to all seafarers regardless of whether they work or not for Synergy, had seen an increase in calls by up to 50% in the last couple of months.

“Stress levels are very different for each seafarer. What we should not be doing is to allow seafarers to reach this dangerous threshold. We need to identify these situations earlier. On ships, it is always a high risk work environment,” Unni said.

Unni, one of the most high profile executives fighting daily to resolve the crew repatriation issue – labelled a humanitarian crisis by the United Nations – told Splash it was vital countries make visas on arrival possible as well as get international flights opening up as chartering planes is not a long term solution to the issue. Conversations with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) had shown that the willingness by certain airlines to create regular seafarer links was being thwarted by the intransigence of national governments to allow flights in and out.

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. Flag States are the only legal responsible for everything that happens on board. The happiness index only serves to fulfill the personal ambitions of its author.

  2. It is sad that seafarers have to resort to such dangerous means in order to get repatriated. Surely much more can be done to help this invisible group. It is a crisis that needs to be dealt with. ITF have issued a harsh statement for seafarers to downtools, would UN be able to do the same for national governments which are still biting their nails on whether to implement measures to increase accessibility to crew changes for the seafarers and their companies?

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