A new study carried out by British data researcher IPSOS on behalf of the UK’s Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency did not paint a positive picture of life at sea – of suicide among seafarers, the recording and reporting suicide, and of seafarers’ mental health.
The report, Suicide and Seafarers, which were obtained through discussions with shipowners, chaplains, unions and charities, points out that suicide is most likely being under recorded.
Released in June 2022, the research has already been used to advocate for an international database to record the manner and cause of crew deaths at sea at the International Labour Organisation.
There is still no agreed international framework for recording suicides at sea. A better understanding of the scale of the problem will ultimately allow government and industry to “create meaningful change”.
Unions and chaplains are frustrated at the underreporting when they often speak to suicidal seafarers in their role. There was a widespread sense that any figures reporting suicide among seafarers are likely to be inaccurate and too low.
Among the deficiencies in the recording and reporting of suicide is the definition of the population of seafarers – is it limited to just those onboard a ship or it includes seafarers who take their lives while ashore, or after they have retired.
The issues of poor mental health and, specifically, suicide were felt to be widespread enough among the workforce that defining the population would need to be resolved before an accurate picture could be established. Unions and charities felt “especially strongly about this, given their role and responsibilities”.
Suicide is poorly understood by the industry and by seafarers and the study uncovered a “deep reticence” to discuss the issue. The research participants freely described how culturally problematic suicide can be for certain nationalities – particularly those from Philippines and China.
There is still a stigma around the discussion of mental health and suicide among seafarers, with many feeling unable to talk about their difficulties or access services. This unwillingness to reach out was also worsened by concerns over confidentiality.
Suicide may go unrecorded for financial reasons too.
A ship manager was quoted as saying, ““Under the insurance for the ship, if someone dies onboard the family gets about $150,000 in death in service payment. If they commit suicide the family get nothing. So that has to be a factor in it as well, that seafarers circle the wagons to make sure that the family’s looked after. “
“On the other hand, participants with direct knowledge of issues around insurance suggested that the perception of suicide being a limiting factor in pay-outs is incorrect,” the report highlighted.
The findings concluded that more could be done to collect better data on suicide – both in terms of the data quality itself but also the wider impact it could have in normalising the discussion around mental health.
The study also demonstrated another key thing – for suicide to be effectively addressed, a more holistic and proactive attempt to tackle the mental health challenges facing seafarers is required; rather than the current reactive way.
This was widely considered key to addressing the issue of suicide specifically.
The report underscored that central to addressing the serious issue of suicide is to embed mental health ‘fitness’ from the top down – through organisational and onboard culture – and from the bottom up – through cadet training and recruitment approaches.
Long working hours, isolation, fatigue, and financial instability impose strain on seafarer’s mental wellbeing. Covid-10 has contributed to further strain among seafarers.
The report found that level of mental health support on offer varies significantly depending on employer.
Mental health support have been provided by unions dedicated to supporting the rights of seafarers – for example, providing seminars to educate seafarers and their families on mental wellbeing, or provided education and training around wellbeing, understanding stress, and mental health awareness specifically targeted at cadets and novice seafarers.
Those education and training programmes also signposted seafarers to counselling services provided by the union, while guaranteeing that such services would be based on strict confidentiality measures.
A union participating in the research pointed out: “We have started educating the cadets, any seafarers going to sea have education on wellbeing including understanding of stress so they know that life as a cadet will be different as they go abroad ship, they know how to cope with it, they know where to go.”
“Seafarers are key essential workers. Their well-being cannot be compromised nor undermined. That is why SMOU has earmarked 2022 as the year where members’ mental health and wellness gains traction as the Union’s priority,” said SMOU General Secretary Mary Liew.
“Whatever we do in SMOU is always geared towards building relationships and a caring community where we uphold each other as our brothers’ keepers. The heart-to-heart connections are the ties that bind and they strengthen us to be more resilient when facing difficult times. It’s ok to be not ok sometimes. We urge our members to reach out to us when they are need help. Together, let’s stay resilient.”