The number of seafarers committing suicide at sea each year is unknown. Yet it is known that seafarers commit suicide and the unique pressures and working environment at sea are contributory factors.

Increasing transparency to evidence the problem

Since June 2020 The Seafarers’ Charity, using our former name Seafarers UK, has been calling for the establishment of a centralised recording mechanism to capture data on the extent of suicides at sea. We believe that greater transparency is necessary. Capturing statistics on suicides at sea will reveal the true extent of the problem. The data will enable trend analysis which can provide evidence to inform interventions to help prevent further suicides.

In recent years there have been efforts to increase transparency about suicides at sea. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) proposed an amendment to Section A.4.3.5 of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006) to mandate the global reporting and collation of data on all fatalities at sea; including suicides at sea.

At a Special Tripartite Meeting of the MLC 2006 in May 2022, delegates agreed 8 out of 12 proposed amendments. The agreed amendments included a variation on the AMSA proposal which will ensure all deaths of seafarers are recorded and reported annually to the ILO and the relevant data is published. Although this amendment does not go as far as we would like in evidencing the extent of suicides, we believe it is a step towards increasing transparency of this issue. It is anticipated that this amendment will come into force by December 2024.

Seafarers’ mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic caused additional pressures for seafarers: extended employment contracts, lack of crew change, and border closures preventing opportunities to spend time ashore added to the challenges of a seafarer’s unique working environment. Lloyds Register's survey on maritime workers’ wellbeing (2020) documented the problem and made recommendations.

In the Q1 2022 Seafarers’ Happiness Index recorded the lowest level of happiness as the emergence of the Omicron variant and war in Ukraine added to travel uncertainties which are inherent in working at sea.

In addition to the employee assistance programmes offered by many shipping companies, maritime welfare charities have responded with a range of initiatives aimed at supporting the mental health of seafarers. Charity initiatives include the development of wellbeing apps to training onboard mental health first aiders and establishing telephone support centres to support seafarers in emotional distress.

The Seafarers' Charity funds a number of interventions aimed at supporting seafarers’ mental health and preventing suicide.

Causes and triggers

There is a need for greater transparency both in respect of reporting suicide and identifying the triggers that can cause seafarers to take their own lives.

While some of the triggers that cause suicide are likely to be the same as those affecting the general population (relationships, financial and health concerns) it is apparent that working at sea presents a unique work environment compared to land-based jobs. This can cause seafarers to face extra pressures in their workplace which can have a negative effect on their mental health.

Adverse factors impacting seafarers’ mental health include:

  • Nature of the work means that seafarers spend long periods of time, typically many months, within their work environment. Unlike those who work on land, seafarers are not able to leave work and return to a home environment at the end of the day. Their work at sea causes them to miss many significant family events and milestones. Loneliness can occur due to long periods spent away from loved ones and be exacerbated by concerns about managing and maintaining close relationships while away at sea.
  • Limited control arises from limitations on food and dietary preferences. While shift work patterns can give rise to difficulty sleeping and create fatigue. The lack of a private space to retire to can also be problematic. In addition, a lack of connectedness and communication with usual support networks are key factors impacting mental wellbeing. Social interaction is important to sustain mental health but can be challenging for multi-national crews who may have different cultural norms and expectations, as well as choosing to socialise in their own language.
  • Work contracts can last for many months and require physically demanding work. The extension of employment contracts and a lack of shore leave caused by border closures during the pandemic created higher levels of uncertainties and worries which triggered increased concerns about mental wellbeing.
  • Management culture at sea can be very hierarchical as this is necessary to manage safety and control of the vessel. A positive and supportive management culture can make all the difference to the work environment and seafarers’ experience within it. However, senior leaders who have limited engagement with ratings may cause junior seafarers to feel unable to safely escalate mental health issues or report bullying or harassment in their workplace. Incidences of bullying and harassment are compounded if the perpetrator is within an individual’s chain of command. An inability to ‘escape’ or leave the work environment at sea further exacerbates the impact on an individual seafarer.
  • Youth and inexperience can be a contributory factor as training for younger cadets is understandably focused on technical aspects of working at sea but does not mentally prepare cadets for the unique pressures of working at sea away from friends and family, thrown into a multicultural work force where language and cultural differences can make it harder to fit in. Adjustments to existing training packages could help make a difference.

Some of these factors such as shift patterns, work contracts and management culture are the employer’s responsibility. Therefore, it is the employer and the terms and conditions of employment, and how these are interpreted and upheld by senior management, that are key to addressing some of the adverse factors that can impact a seafarer’s mental health at work and cause them to feel suicidal.

Impact of suicide at sea

The impact of suicide at sea cannot be underestimated for those involved:

  • Family and loved ones whose anguish is often made worse because the body is lost at sea.
  • Many seafarers are the main earner in the family and their loss creates a devastating financial impact.
  • Immediate crew mates can be emotionally distraught at the sudden loss of their colleague and the general morale of everyone on board is impacted.
  • Captain and officers on board must manage the response to severe mental health issues and suicide and commonly experience high levels of anxiety as well as concerns about their professional reputation as managers. Senior leaders on ships are forced to balance crew welfare concerns with shoreside company policy and business pressures.

Further information

Department for Transport and Maritime and Coastguard Agency: Understanding seafarer suicide and its potential under-reporting (June 2022)

Seafarers Hospital Society discussion paper titled ‘Seafarers’ Health: On Course for a Culture of Care’ which establishes possible key performance indicators (KPIs) for ship owners and operators to measure the effectiveness of strategies aimed at improving seafarer health and wellbeing (September 2022)

Lloyd’s Register Survey on maritime workers’ wellbeing during COVID-19 (2020)