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Seafarer suicide is part of a wider mental health crisis

Suicide among seafarers is under-reported but the available numbers are too low. Among the many factors behind this are societal and religious stigma and likely loss of income for bereaved families

A study conducted on behalf of the UK government concludes that better data and a holistic approach to mental health issues would help to address the tragedy of seafarer suicide

HOW serious an issue is seafarer suicide? Nowhere near serious enough for global shipping to have spent much time and effort understanding its causes and effects, according to a new report.

Interviews from across the industry for a UK report discovered that the answer to the question depends on several factors.

Among these is whether the ‘population of seafarers’ is limited to those serving at sea or includes seafarers who take their lives while ashore, or after they have retired.

Also, whether the seafarer in question comes from a culture in which there is societal or religious stigma associated with suicide.

Similarly, suicide may go unrecorded for financial reasons.

One shipmanager interviewed for the Suicide and Seafarers study commented that, under the insurance for the ship, “if someone dies on board, the family gets about $150,000 in death-in-service payment. If they commit suicide, the family get nothing.”

“That has to be a factor in it as well,” the manager said. “Seafarers circle the wagons to make sure the family is looked after.”

The study was carried out by British data researcher IPSOS on behalf of the UK’s Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Interview participants described considerable variation in how different organisations recorded suicide. They described how individual companies might keep a record of all incidents on board, typically in a non-standardised way, and how this data would be unlikely to be shared outside the company or across the sector.

There was a widespread sense that figures reporting suicide among seafarers are inaccurate and too low. Chaplains and unions expressed their frustration about under-reporting when they often speak to suicidal seafarers in their role.

Seafarers themselves were not interviewed for the report, given that it might be distressing for them to discuss the issue of suicide among their colleagues and because it would be challenging to obtain all the necessary ethical approvals in time.

Researchers decided that addressing seafarer suicide would not make much progress if the study focused narrowly on the issue itself. Instead, the issue of suicide was covered as part of a wider investigation into seafarer mental health.

Seafarers face challenges — from isolation and fatigue to financial instability and extended periods at sea — that were exacerbated by the restrictions on their movements brought by the lockdowns in key global economies.

Mental health issues were regarded as “poorly understood”, both among seafarers and across the industry more widely.

Larger shipping companies, chaplains, unions, and charities have all sought to provide face-to-face support, raise awareness of the issues, and make themselves available when a seafarer needs to talk. However, more often than not this was reactive and resources available are limited.

The report concluded that the key to understanding, and then dealing with, seafarer suicide lies in encouraging the industry to tackle mental health among seafarers in a holistic and preventative manner rather than the reactive way it is dealt with at present.

Mental health fitness should be regarded alongside physical fitness, and embedded through organisational and onboard culture, as well as through cadet training and recruitment approaches.

Finally, the report calls for the gathering of better data on suicide — both in terms of the data quality itself and on the wider impact this would have in normalising the discussion around mental health.

The report comes alongside the launch of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s new digital platform designed to support seafarers’ health and wellbeing. The Wellbeing at Sea Tool provides practical advice for seafarers and helps organisations monitor wellbeing and support their employees.

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