Urgent advice as cases of suicide at sea continue to climb

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.

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. Right on Haskell. Owners and managers will never abandon their racist attitude to 3rd world crews unless they are made to. And that must come from charterers or group managers like MOL.
    A humane Captain makes a lot of difference, but most of the foreign Captains l ever met while working for Transport Canada could only sneer at the crew and regard them as useless animals.
    I think a component dealing with the psychology of Leadership should be included in their oral examination, and certainly in the Master’s syllabus. I had a suicide once on board when l was still a cadet. ‘Dear John’ from home. Jumped out of the owners cabin window. Master made first mistake with suicides, and that is to never leave a potential suicide alone by themselves.

    1. Colin, it’s not just Masters but all seafarers, officers and ratings, wherever they are sourced from should have a component on cultural awareness effective communication (not mzritime terminolgy), respect and regard for fellow humans I clouded in their foundation and continued education and training and be assessed to ascertain their knowledge and u understanding before they are certificated. Preferably in a stand alone module. And be properly evaluated before they are employed.

      Just food for thought.

  2. ‘Education’? Bah. The typical approach of ‘creating a short course’ is absolutely useless. 3 day powerpoint on how not to kill yourself? Would that knowledge expire every 5 years as well?

    How many seafarers will come home after this covid panic, to find they will be getting a divorce, or that their kids no longer know them? How many will return to sea next year after being released from a year of working against their will, and with a fat stack of overtime cash in their pocket?

    Root cause analysis for suicides would likely be too far reaching for many to stomach. How about black listing flag States that refuse to allow crew change, since Feb 2019!?

    The job deep sea is barely tolerable as it is. Being part of a multinational crew is an isolating experience in themselves. Without friends of a common language or culture, it just isn’t the same. If you add in the restrictions on shore leave, stagnant wages (shockingly low for many, accounting for inflation and such a dangerous and difficult job), no alcohol, very few members of the fairer sex, families not allowed on board, quick port turnarounds, and ISPS and COVID rules making life ridiculously difficult. It is a wonder that the entire industry hasn’t ground to a halt. But companies with bad conditions can always just find crews from poorer and poorer nations. And when the crew start to realise they have a valuable skillset and human rights worth litigating for, we can just move on to recruit a less savvy bunch.

    Crew need more options for things to really improve. Improving competition between companies/flag States making them compete to attract labour would force companies to put crew welfare as a priority, as it is in countries with strong union/cabotage laws, like Norway and USA.

    STCW severely restricts the supply of maritime labour, allowing abusive officers/crew to retain their position well beyond what would be tolerated ashore. The MLC bottleneck for crewing agencies and ISPS effectively prohibit the age-old practice of ‘jumping-ship’, removing the one thing sailors could do to improve their lot, namely, ‘voting with their feet’. And the ever increasing regulatory burden on shipping ensures only the mega-sized companies can thrive, further limiting employment options for unhappy seafarers. Pitiful ITF minimum wages keep junior ranks from saving enough capital to quickly progress up, or move ashore.

    I know personally that we still have crew from India permitted to work on STCW ‘compliant’ vessels, even where the crew will just openly tell you that they are employed through an agent who treats them as literal endentured servants.

    A long way to go.
    And automation won’t solve these problems. It will only serve to further alienate the remaining crew, who will be fewer in number and therefore barely have 10 words on conversation with another human on a typical day.

    If the IMO, flag states and companies were still being run by ex-seafarers, things might be better. And even those ex-seafarers who are in such a position, may have not been at sea during 2020, this being, possibly the most depressing year of all.

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