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Are suicides at sea being underestimated?

Recent reports of seafarers stranded on cruise ships taking their own lives have highlighted the dearth of reliable information about suicides at sea.

Maritime welfare charities – many funded by Seafarers UK – continually strive to improve the mental health of seafarers on merchant vessels, by providing helpful sources of information and advice and in some cases pastoral support and someone to talk through their problems.

But with most crew changes prevented due to coronavirus restrictions, thousands of seafarers are being compelled to work beyond their contract end dates and denied access ashore at ports on trade routes worldwide. As a result, many seafarers’ medical conditions are going untreated, ship visits by port chaplains and welfare workers are severely restricted, and access to free communication with families and friends is typically infrequent.

One consequence of this crisis has been an increase in the number of seafarer suicides, including on ‘mothballed’ cruise ships. But there appears to be no reliable source of information about the scale of this tragedy.

On the eve of Seafarers Awareness Week (which starts today), Seafarers UK’s Chief Executive Officer Catherine Spencer said: ‘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.’

‘This may be because suicides do not result in claims handled by the P&I Clubs that provide insurance for most merchant ship owners. But that picture is also unclear, as some suicides at sea may be being recorded erroneously as fatal accidents.Unless we know the true extent of the problem, how can we target our support for seafarers and those working on the front line to support seafarers’ welfare?’

Continued Catherine Spencer: ‘I urge the International Labour Organization to consider what steps need to be taken, with regard to the Maritime Labour Convention 2006, to ensure that all seafarer suicides are accurately identified, recorded and shared with organizations like Seafarers UK that fund a wide range of interventions and welfare services which support the wellbeing of seafarers and their families.’

 Seafarers Awareness Week is coordinated by Seafarers UK to focus on the wider impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the families of merchant seafarers of all nationalities.