FROM THE CAPTAIN'S WINDOW
Stories on Maritime Leadership
Down in the Doldrums: Suicide at Sea
‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times’
Suicide note by Tony Hancock. He was a successful television comedian. A star. But a series of problems, including a severe concussion that affected his memory, conflicts with fellow actors, alcoholism, and divorce, led to his suicide in 1968.
It is estimated that around 800,000 people commit suicide every year. For every suicide, there are several more attempts. Suicide is the 18th leading cause of death worldwide. The problem is also prevalent among seafarers; statistics show that over a thousand seafarers have committed suicide in the last fifty years. Sometimes suspected suicide cases are simply recorded as 'lost at sea'. It’s not a new phenomenon though; in in 1828, Captain Pringle Stokes who commanded the HMS Beagle shot himself after a round of depression. It was a sad ending for a Captain of this famous ship that had carried Charles Darwin on his extraordinary voyages.
Matt O´Crowley, an auditor and consultant for both maritime and industrial organisations is currently trying to raise awareness of suicide and mental health issues amongst seafarers by working with a number of groups including the Maritime Wellness Institute. This is his story…
"I came into the maritime industry as a mature student, and after a career that included working on small passenger and work vessels amongst many other things. Whilst it was a formative and wonderful experience, I came into contact with a number of individuals that were frankly underprepared and badly informed of the realities of working at sea and the isolation that it brings. I saw first-hand how poorly cadets were recruited, mentored and developed.
During my time at college, my great friend Matt (another mature student) was scapegoated by those who should have known better whilst he was fighting ongoing mental health issues and situational depression. His story ended with his cadetship being withdrawn, and whilst appearing entirely collected and motivated to pursue other options he tragically ended his life.
My own yarn will be familiar to many, my partner felt abandoned by my going to sea which put an unbearable strain on our relationship. The stress of the situation at home and my work as a maritime auditor in West Africa for 2 months at a time led to me suffering a minor stroke which certainly pulled the rug from under my feet and spelled the end of my career (as I thought at the time). Divorce was on the cards, and of course eventually came. I attempted suicide twice, because I felt that my identity had been taken away from me, and also resented my partner for having a secret life when I was away-but frighteningly the process of getting there was not the tear soaked idea held by many. When the darkness came, I found myself operating fully on autopilot and fully committed to dying. The second event happened after a particularly happy day, where I was literally crying with laughter with good friends. You don’t need to be sad to want to end it all, and looking back on it this is a revelation to me.
Many of the ex-fishermen that I worked with described how they remembered shipmates killing themselves at sea, and how they would find their clothes neatly folded on the deck in a tidy pile; something that at the time didn’t resonate, but now I recognise as a symptom of the cold calculating process we go through to override our innate instinct of survival.
Happily, I am now at my happiest and most content, and the experiences that I went through have made me a better person, both at work and play; but I am ever vigilant of the black dog that could come back and for a reason that may shock you, and in fact meant that at no point I could access any mental health support from the health service.
Suicide comes in many flavours and for me it was THE solution at the time, it was irrational and daft. I called the Samaritans, and frankly they made the situation worse…the problem for me was that I enjoyed the feeling of being close to death and was deeply offended when I was found and cut down. The process didn´t hurt for long, and it actually began to feel good-for me the fear and trepidation of dying was removed which of course led to my second attempt. Again, in retrospect, I have to concede that sailors are a little different-we appreciate direct language and the general well meaning, breathy statements such as “and how does that make you feel” just doesn’t work for large swathes of us. Much as alcoholics may identify as such during sobriety, I am the same with suicide-even though I am ´happy´. For me, it was an autonomous process that once started became an exercise in tying good knots. On one occasion, I self-harmed in order to distract myself, leading to my cutting my arms to ribbons, I’ve never done it again-but it saved my life by breaking the sense of inevitability.
Most people that know me would say that I am a strong person, and I am. Because of the nuances of my attempts I could not tick the correct boxes to get prompt treatment, and because I was cognisant of my actions I was not sectioned. In fact, once the mist had cleared, I felt absolutely fine leading me to understand that what I needed most were tactics to buy time and let the feelings subside-a bit like a cigarette craving.
These days, I am firmly back in the saddle and rarely think about this horrific episode in my life. But recently I was made aware of another classmate from college who had ended his life in a similar vein to myself and Matt, all three of us had our identity taken away and couldn´t cope. I remember as well other members of my class who had come close, had their own crisis and handled it badly and I not only remember, but now realise in all clarity how badly we as an industry recognise and support our families at sea.
The Maritime Wellness Institute is currently working on a wellness management system to address many of the issues faced by seafarers around the world, and I would urge as many people as possible to get behind this fantastic initiative.
My personal experience became the making of me, but tragically and all too often it is the ending of others.
Anecdotal evidence that I am receiving shows that many suicides and episodes are taking place away from data collection points, and currently we have little idea of the scale of the problem. Vast improvements are required to improve the situation, and it is my personal mission to speak openly and candidly about my own experiences to try and stop others from not experiencing the joy of life from the other side."
At Eternity' Gate, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890, completed months before his own suicide.
Matt is remarkably courageous in sharing his own experiences and I admire his determination in doing so to prevent others from going through with suicidal thoughts. I’ve lost some friends and colleagues to suicide – and I’ve seen the devastating effect it’s had on their families. It’s an uncomfortable topic for many but given its impact, we would be doing a disservice to our community by sweeping it under the carpet.
I’ve come to realize that there are not always clear signs or symptoms surrounding suicide. Sometimes, the person decides to go through almost instantly. In other cases, it’s a result of an internal struggle which has been going on for years. Though various tests and scales have been developed to predict suicidal acts, there is no clear evidence that these tests are successful. It is indeed possible for a person to fake the test should the person intend to hide suicidal intentions. Even in my own experience, I found that some of the seafarers who committed suicide had successfully passed psychometric tests.
Until we find more reliable predictors of suicide, probably the best way to prevent them is to be aware of any indicators in our family, friends and colleagues. And perhaps some empathy towards all, even towards those who appear ‘imbalanced’ or ‘not normal’ will go a long way. Do remember that most of us will go through some crisis or grief at some point of life, and we all are affected in different ways. Healthy social interactions on ships help crews to share or dissipate any concerns that may be building up. A word of compassion towards your colleague going through a break-up or a loss will help them rebound from the situation faster.
For those who do are going through feelings of grief or depression, it's OK to say 'I'm Not OK'. Reach out to your friends, family and colleagues and give them permission to help you. Even if you’re down in the doldrums, remember the wind is just around the corner.