Suicide among today’s seafarers is on the increase and is being fuelled as much by the negative aftermath of the Covid pandemic as it is by a lack of mental health awareness in the industry.
Industry specialist Mental Health Support Solutions has a stark warning that a zero tolerance policy needs to be adopted towards mental health issues and suicides at sea and that shipping needs to understand there’s still a lot of work to do before the situation can be resolved.
“Suicide at sea is, and always has been, a serious issue because every life lost at sea is a tragedy. It needs to be our priority to assure that this issue is spoken about openly and addressed in a way that helps us prevent these losses in the future,” said Charles Watkins, clinical psychologist and managing director at MHSS.
Watkins said it is in every employer’s interests to promote a safe, healthy and fair working environment. Every company needs to have a specific policy in place that is in accordance with local legislation, along with a fast track-track system for dealing with complaints about bullying and harassment, Watkins urged.
“There needs to be a zero-tolerance policy to ensure that people take this seriously. Owners and managers should offer training and psychoeducation about this topic to assure a safe, fair and productive work environment on vessels,” Watkins said.
Admitting that it is hard to put rising suicide cases down to one factor, Watkins argued that the environment onboard ship can certainly contribute to the mental state of seafarers.
“Bullying and harassment have devastating effects on seafarers and especially on those seafarers who are already suffering from mental health-related issues. This is a trend that we picked up, and we are working to raise awareness and educate about the dangers and the need for support systems to be in place,” Watkins said.
The problem can start to be tackled simply according to the MHSS team by talking about it: talking openly about these incidences and about suicide. And training seafarers to recognise those of their colleagues at risk. Seafarers need to be given the tools to start the conversation about this topic and to know how to offer relief to those seafarers that are struggling, Watkins said.
The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is seeking changes to the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) to better reflect the true numbers of suicides at sea.
Splash reported last July how the charity Seafarers UK was demanding a more reliable source of information about the scale of suicides at sea, a phenomenon reportedly increasing thanks to the protracted time crew are spending at sea because of travel restrictions put in place by the coronavirus. The picture is unclear as some suicides at sea may be being recorded erroneously as fatal accidents.