In observance of World Mental Health Day, celebrated on October 10th, the Human Rights At Sea (HRAS) released a statement emphasizing the need to combat stigma around mental health and drawing attention to the continuing global challenge of suicide.
RAS highlighted that suicide remains a pressing issue worldwide, ”with complex and interconnected social, economic, cultural, and psychological factors contributing to its prevalence. Sadly, the maritime industry and all other persons living, working or otherwise transiting at sea are not immune to this problem.”
Life at sea presents its own unique challenges, ranging from seafarers facing abandonment and forced labour conditions, to refugees fleeing conflict, economic migrants seeking new lives, individuals being trafficked and subjected to slavery, and others suffering abuse. The International Maritime Health Journal estimated that between 5% and 18.3% of deaths at sea in 2022 were linked to suicide, a staggering statistic when considering that approximately 30 million people are at sea at any given time. This means that potentially, over 5 million men, women, and children at sea may be grappling with thoughts of taking their own lives.
Tragically, in some countries, suicide is still considered a criminal offence, carrying penalties of up to three years in prison for those who attempt suicide.
While there have been some positive developments, such as Ghana following in the footsteps of Guyana and Pakistan and moving to decriminalise suicide, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) granting judge’s discretion to send individuals convicted of attempting suicide to treatment centres instead of imprisoning them, the underlying issue remains.
Recent incidents, such as a Med Sea Eagle crew member, who remains anonymous for legal reasons, attempting to take his own life over unpaid wages while anchored off Sharjah in the UAE, may well highlight the dire consequences of such punitive laws.
Uncovering a Crisis
Criminalising suicide does not deter those in crisis; it only discourages the most vulnerable from seeking help.
Laws that criminalise suicide exacerbate the stigma surrounding mental health and unfairly label those in distress as criminals, and individuals who attempt suicide can end up with permanent criminal records, severely restricting their future opportunities in both work and life.
In that regard, HRAS recommends organisations like LifeLine International that have taken a stand by advocating for a world where suicide is not a crime and where everyone has access to non-judgmental support, regardless of their location or circumstances.
Recently, LifeLine International launched its position statement on decriminalising suicide, noting that “action taken to provide meaningful community support for people experiencing distress and struggling to cope with difficulties in their lives will contribute to suicide prevention. Access to quality mental health care and psychosocial support will contribute to suicide prevention. The offer of support must be regarded as a safe and viable alternative to be accepted by those in need. There should be no detrimental consequences for people seeking that help.”
CEO Thilini Perera said:
Criminalisation not only denies individuals their right to non-judgemental support but also compounds their suffering by branding their distress as criminal.
HRAS concludes that penalising people because of matters often beyond their control creates a climate of fear, making it challenging for individuals to confide in those around them and seek help. This fear of legal repercussions results in the underreporting of suicide attempts, leading to an inaccurate understanding of the problem and less urgency in allocating the resources necessary to address it.
Mental health is a fundamental human right, and providing support and resources should be at the forefront of our efforts to protect the well-being of those at sea.