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Going Crazy on the High Seas

Long hours, fatigue and widespread harassment are leading to mental health emergencies and a high suicide rate for merchant marines

Everybody who works on a big ship in the open ocean seems to have a story about someone else who burned out, or worse. The ship’s nationality might change — same for the oceans it traverses — but there have always been those who feel like they’re losing their sanity when stuck on a metal giant in an endless expanse of water.

There’s the 18-year-old Korean kid who disappeared overnight while on a 10-month contract off the Indian coast, leaving only a trail of heartbroken diary entries. Or the container-ship captain who was found crumpled and pulseless in the quiet of his cabin, dead just one long, stressful week into a journey from New York to Essex. Or a 22-year-old Ethiopian man, Amaha Senu, who took a job on a ship cruising the deep sea because of the lucrative pay, but ended up struggling with suicidal thoughts while feeling trapped about his career. “The first few weeks was a crushing moment. I thought I had made a big mistake in my life,” Senu told the BBC. “When I was speaking to my family over the phone, I definitely masked what I was going through. There isn’t even much the family can even do in that situation.”

It’s estimated that 90 percent of global trade travels via ship, and that figure has grown fourfold since 1970. More than 100,000 commercial ships crisscross the oceans to deliver everything from jellybeans to big rigs into ports each day. In the U.S. alone, commercial ports take in nearly $2 trillion worth of international goods each year. This is a stunning arterial system of commerce, with more than 1.5 million people working as merchant seafarers.

Occupational experts also consider commercial shipping to be the second-deadliest industry in the world, with its cousin, deep-sea fishing, ranking number one. Researcher Robert Iversen charted seafarer deaths between 1960 and 2009 and found that of more than 17,000 deaths, nearly 6 percent were suicides — a rate far surpassing the U.S. national average. While current deaths are way down from the peak in the 1960s, there’s evidence to suggest that suicide rates are spiking in recent years. That is, suicide rates among seafarers suffering from poor mental health have more than tripled since 2014, according to the UK P&I Club, which insures commercial ships.

The advocates working to help seafarers have also noticed an uptick in calls from desperate workers. It’s not clear whether the bump is because people are more self-aware of their mental health struggles, or because of an actual increase of people with problems, says Roger Harris, the executive director of U.K. nonprofit International Seafarer’s Welfare and Assistance Network. Experts have long considered the already-high suicide rate in commercial sailors to be underreported because of how so many suicides are deemed “lost at sea” incidents.

“We’ve been working with a health psychologist who has analyzed a lot of the data, and found that there are more cases involving mental well-being than we previously thought,” Harris says. “There are people who are lost at sea and everyone on that ship knows it was a suicide, but they won’t say a word, because the family wouldn’t get proper compensation for the death.” In other words, a company might not pay “death benefits” if an incident was deemed the responsibility of the worker.

One 2018 study conducted by Sailor’s Society and Yale University found that 26 percent of seafarers show signs of depression. Nearly half of those workers reported they hadn’t asked anyone for help, and only 21 percent said they had opened up to a shipmate about their problems, even despite all the hours they spent rubbing shoulders at sea.

Britt Elliott spent two decades working on ocean-going tugboats and another two decades as an instructor at California State University Maritime Academy, where students get trained and licensed to work on commercial ships. “I graduated in 1981, so back then there was very little talk about mental health other than, ‘Hey, you’re going to be dealing with alcoholics and a lot of people out of prison,’” Elliott says. “Now we’re having to do a lot more to educate people about what to expect.”

Elliott notes he’s “one of the lucky ones” — he took to life on the water fairly easily, and didn’t suffer a major mental health breakdown himself. But he did see the stress crush plenty of others throughout his time sailing the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Coast and beyond. He saw how the sinking of one’s mood can happen suddenly, even to those with thousands of hours on the open seas under their belt. “We were towing down from Alaska to Panama, and the captain just goes, ‘This is really getting to me.’ And he told me, ‘I’m keeping a diary just in case,’” Elliott recalls. “When we got to Panama, he had to fly home. He offered me a copy of his diary, and I took it. I haven’t read it, because I lived it, y’know? He was smart enough to see what was happening to him, and to reach out to me. But it wasn’t easy.”

Life on a commercial boat can be a lesson in disconcerting extremes: The natural landscape is endless and free, yet the living quarters are cramped and the social circles are tiny, considering crews often comprise about 12 to 20 people. Not to mention, most ships lack internet access. There are also industry-wide problems with workers getting enough shore leave (free time while docked). On-ship resources for mental health care are limited. A 2010 review of U.K. seafarer suicides from 1919 to 2015 found the most frequent factors were work problems (showing up in 30 percent of confirmed cases), notably conflicts among the crew, disciplinary problems, stress and shore-leave cancellation. Mental health factors were seen in 25 percent of cases, including depression and marital/relationship struggles.

Working at sea is an unforgiving occupation, whether you’re steering the ship or working in the engine room, which is why a cycle of stress can send workers on a spiral, Elliott says. And an increasingly competitive shipping industry means that crews are kept small and the hours long — a potentially deadly combination, especially when seafarers are taking overtime work to grind out extra cash, Harris adds.

This fatigue is cited as a major contributing factor in shipping disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the 2015 sinking of the container ship SS El Faro, which led to attempts at reforming the culture and protocol on commercial ships. Yet ask active sailors around the internet, and problems with exhaustion pop up again and again. “Sleep. I’ve been a merchant mariner all my adult working life and the lack of sleep is an issue. It has changed for the better in the past five years with the changing of work rest rules via the STCW Manila Amendments but still we’re a long way off,” one Redditor tells me when I ask about stress factors at sea. “I’m not sure if it’s just me getting old or if it’s from years of six hours on, six hours off watches, but my Circadian rhythm is all messed up.”

Then there’s the isolation a sailor develops over months at sea, with little to no connection to his loved ones. Losing that safety net can push people to deep, unforgiving depression, says Monique Watanabe, a longtime commercial sailor and lecturer at Cal Maritime. “Constantly working 12 to 16 hour days, seven days a week for 120 days at a time, fatigues any person and exacerbates any struggle with mental health,” Watanabe says. “I’ve found that being on the bridge of a ship for eight hours a day staring out the window is the best therapy I could give myself. Other days, though, it can be lonely. It’s just me, my watch partner and an ocean full of water.”

Everything gets worse if you don’t get along with the small group of peers around you. One survey found 43 percent of merchant sailors experienced harassment while out at sea (women, who make up just around 1 to 2 percent of the seafaring workforce, naturally reported much higher rates of bullying). Racial tensions remain a reality, too. “Certain nationalities should never be put together on the same ship. Racism and abuse are prevalent on many open registry ships today. To compound all of this, the seafarer has to deal with the immense isolation aboard ship,” one study noted.

While the biggest companies like Maersk and Shell usually have more rigorous protocols for reporting such problems, many smaller employers lack both the infrastructure and the desire to effectively police bad practices. Roy Paul, who represents Filipino sailors for the U.K.’s ITF Seafarers Trust, says retribution is more than just a fear in workers’ heads: “You’ll have someone who has worked for a ship for four or five years, then makes a complaint against, for example, a racist captain. Suddenly the agency has no ship for him, though it did for four years,” he told The Telegraph.

More and more international shipping workers are coming from rural regions of India, China and the Philippines. The relatively strong pay for seafaring jobs means there’s a lot of pressure to land a gig and keep it. Seafarers Welfare is seeing increased calls from this demographic of young workers, Harris says. “These young people going to sea, a lot of them have no connection with the sea, and it doesn’t take long for them to realize it’s not the life for them,” he says. “But then their family have borrowed a lot of money for them to go to maritime school, and they’re dependent on them getting a good job to support the extended family. These young people don’t see any way out other than the shame of going back home. And some of these stories end with suicide.”

No wonder there’s so much self-medicating, namely in the form of alcohol, although substances that can skirt a drug test, like “high doses of NyQuil,” are also common, Elliott says. (Alcohol abuse is under-reported, but 17 percent of suicides reviewed in the 1919 to 20o9 study involved heavy drinking.)

International standards for mental health and seafarer safety are slowly shifting as companies realize suicides at sea aren’t just immoral, but bad for business. A coalition of companies and nonprofits in the U.K. announced new guidelines this summer for how to improve mental health care on ships, with a focus on providing trained professionals who can counsel a seafarer without any pressure from a direct manager. The curriculum at maritime academies has changed, too. Elliott now spends several weeks discussing mental health to his new cadets, which includes finding ways to work out and eat a healthy diet on the confines of a ship.

Progress is happening, but it’s still slow. Harris, for one, suggests it will be a while before policies on paper make an impact on actual social culture in a ship—seafarers will continue to hide their mental health problems if they fear ridicule or a firing. Much of the onus lands squarely on the shoulders of leadership, whether it’s of a ship or a shipping firm, Elliott says, summing it up with an aside: “Let me give you an old quote. ‘Fish stinks from the head back.’”