Suicide of seafarers: A red-zone for shipping amid pandemic

The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) recognizes World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness around the globe that suicide can be prevented.

Over 25% of seafarers suffer from severe depression and almost 6% of deaths at sea is attributed to suicide, but this figure has dramatically increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


How has the pandemic landscape affected seafarers’ well-being?

Travel restrictions due to the pandemic significantly disrupted the ability of crew change. As a result, hundreds of thousands of seafarers worldwide remained trapped onboard with extended contracts, unable to return home and denied access at ports worldwide. Meanwhile, thousands of seamen were unable to sign in, triggering financial uncertainty for themselves and families.

Global organizations, seafarers unions and associations have repeatedly rung the bell on governments to end this deadlock and enable the safe transport of seafarers as key workers. Calls denounced that seafarers’ medical conditions were going untreated, ship visits by port chaplains and welfare workers were severely restricted, and access to free communication with families and friends was typically infrequent.

A lack of Wi-Fi access on board some ships leaves seafarers feeling even more isolated from friends, family and loved ones at home, particularly during a pandemic when they may have family members suffering from COVID-19,

…noted Revd Canon Andrew Wright, Secretary General, The Mission to Seafarers, in an exclusive interview with SAFETY4SEA.

The calls reached a tipping point after reports of seafarers stranded on cruise ships taking their own lives. The death of a Filipino crew on the cruise ship ‘Harmony of the Seas’ made headlines in June, as she was found dead outside her cabin in a suspected suicide case.


So what can the industry do?

#1 Identify numbers

The first step to solve a problem is to identify the problem. But under-reporting is a great problem, as some suicides at sea may be being recorded erroneously as fatal accidents, ISWAN recently warned. In early July, the organization called ILO to consider steps in line with MLC, to ensure that all seafarer suicides are accurately identified.

I have been astonished to discover that there is no single source of data on how many seafarers have taken their own lives during the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, alarmingly, it appears no one has been or is keeping an accurate global record of seafarer suicides,

…Seafarers UK’s Chief Executive Officer Catherine Spencer said.


#2 Identify behaviours

In its latest mental health guidance for seafarers, AMSA identified the following signs in crew, if they are out of character:

  • withdrawing, isolating, or being quieter than usual
  • appearing distressed
  • appearing agitated or irritable
  • having difficulty managing the work or workload
  • being argumentative, aggressive or getting into conflict
  • being confused, unusually forgetful, or having trouble concentrating


#3 Identify ways to help

  • Respect privacy of seafarers
  • Help with any practical arrangements they may need
  • Enable means of communication
  • Help them to re-establish a normal schedule as quickly as possible, and include them in the activities of others
  • Encourage them to be active and involved onboard


In a video released in March, Dr Kate Thompson, a counselling psychologist, provides information and guidance for seafarers affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic. The video seeks to answer actual questions posed by seafarers who contacted ISWAN’s helpline SeafarerHelp:

Did you know?

  • Every 40 seconds, someone in the world loses their life to suicide, according to WHO.
  • Close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year.
  • For every suicide there are many more people who attempt suicide every year. A prior suicide attempt is the single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 15-19-year-olds.
  • 79% of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Ingestion of pesticide, hanging and firearms are among the most common methods of suicide globally.

Either in shipping or in any other industry, we must not forget that suicide is preventable!

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