Shipping’s darkest secret: coping with suicide at sea

In the shipping industry, it is one of the last taboos
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By Edward Ion

It’s often the most depressing, difficult and sensitive subject: the suicide of a seafarer stops everyone in their tracks and makes us think: How can a human being reach such depths of despair to do this?.

But one of the most concerning and heart wrenching aspects of the entire ‘crewing crisis’ is the fact that seafarer suicide appears to be on the rise.

There are no official figures to support this premise. But as a group which specialises in public affairs and communication at times of stress, we can confirm we are receiving a steady stream of notifications about apparent suicides and suicide attempts by seafarers on board vessels all over the globe.

It has even been claimed, by UK charity Seafarers Hospital Society, that suicide has become “the foremost” cause of death among seafarers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

For many in the shipping industry, it is one of the last taboos: no-one wishes to talk about the topic as the first reaction is to ask the questions: How can this have happened? and What could we have done to prevent this?

It’s a moment of deep, inner corporate as well as personal reflection and the last thing needed is public scrutiny or criticism. But inevitably this is what happens today following the death of a seafarer.

Because the global crew change crisis has become an issue of international concern and interest, the media around the world has been quick to pick up on apparent suicides on board vessels. They have also been fast to link these terrible incidents to the length of time seafarers have been on board ships, unable to return home and the consequential effect this has on mental and physical well-being.

In several of the cases Navigate Response has dealt with in the past year or so, the confirmation of a suicide has often been a long and drawn-out process.

This is understandable as the last thing anyone wants to accept is the fact that a person took their own life.

Combine this with the difficulties of establishing facts via a coroner’s inquiry, or any kind of formal inquiry, makes the conclusion ever harder to reach. This situation is part of the taboo nature of the topic.

‘Officialdom’ will not help either and it is claimed that seafarers’ terms of employment are often written with an exclusion of a death in service payment in the event of suicide.

For complex and sensitive reasons and with the absence of official inquiries in many cases, suicides at sea remain a murky and little discussed issue in the industry.

When all the evidence points to a suicide on board, maximum sensitivity is required when dealing with next-of-kin communications.

The companies that do this difficult job with professionalism and tact often use trained, experienced counsellors for the front-line work. But when the media takes an interest, a different set of guidelines need to be observed.

Firstly, it should never be the role of an owner, manager or operator to label a death as ‘suicide’ without some form of outside, independent confirmation by a third party such as police, or a pathologist’s report or an inquiry by the flag state.

Even if the departed’s name is posted on social media along with speculation about cause of death, names and details should not be shared in the immediate aftermath. This is to protect the family of the deceased as well as other ship mates who may well be traumatized by events.

It is vital for the company involved to focus its efforts on firstly finding out what really happened on board the vessel and then communicating with the family of the deceased.

Our recent experiences show this counselling can be intense and can continue for many weeks.

The media will press for cause of death in such cases, but our role is not to confirm this, only to provide basic facts such as a death occurring on board. Labelling cause of death prematurely will only lead to further pain and suffering for the family of the deceased even when it is clear that a suicide has taken place.


For more information about the Seafarers Hospital Society, go to:

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