Being a mariner is a tough and frequently lonely job, and often the work and the lifestyle can get you down.
But while feeling sad can be expected as part of life’s ups and downs, inland towing companies, working with their allies at the Seamen’s Church Institute, have become alarmed at the number of suicides among mariners working on the rivers.
At the request of towing companies, SCI launched the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) workshop in 2017 for shore-side personnel in the inland river industry. The goal is to help the towing industry identity and react to suicidal tendencies among their mariners.
I learned about the program last week during a visit organized by the Waterways Council Inc. to SCI’s Center for Maritime Education in Paducah, Ky. It was part of broader visit to see first-hand the Olmsted Lock and Dam project on the Ohio River, that will become partially operational after 30 years of construction in October.
In introducing SCI to a group of visiting industry and press representatives, John Arenstram, a retired Coast Guard captain who is assistant director, said that suicide among mariners is a growing concern. “They are finding it’s a issue on the river, “ Arenstram said. “There is still a lot of suicides in the towing community, a lot more than we thought were happening.”
Statistics are hard to come by, but SCI says anecdotal data from the inland industry suggest that mariner suicides occur off-duty at home by self-inflicted gunshots, often within 48 hours before or after deployment to and from their vessel.
Nashville-based Ingram Barge is among the companies that have recognized the importance of identifying suicide signals and sent a representative to the SCI workshop last July.
Asked about whether Ingram sees this as a growing problem, Dan Mecklenborg, senior vice president, chief legal office and secretary, told me after one of the gatherings in Paducah: “We are concerned about it and focused on it, and we want to reduce the incidence” of suicide among mariners.
Developed in 1983 by Living Works Education of Alberta, Canada, ASIST workshops train participants to recognize suicide behaviors, identify people who might be at risk and how best to intervene to prevent a tragedy. SCI has adapted the program to the river industry in what Rev. David Rider, SCI’s president and executive director, has called an “emergency first aid for preventing suicides.”
Dr. Naomi Walker, SCI’s director of communications and an accredited ASIST trainer, said the workshops deal directly with attitudes about suicide prevention and discuss the major risk indicators: sudden changes in behavior or personality, feelings of hopelessness or depression, previous suicide attempts and statements expressing a desire to die. She said companies should also be ready to honestly discuss the topic with employees.
SCI says working on a towboat can create stressful situations that can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts: long deployments on the river, separation from families, feeling helpless to solve family problems while working, and living a highly structured life on a vessel followed by returning to a less structured family life at home. SCI says mariners may also view themselves a “ruggedly self-sufficient and defer seeking professional help.”
The sessions are organized four times a year at SCI offices in New York, Paducah and Houston. The summer session in Paducah gets underway on July 31, and the next is scheduled in Houston Oct 10-11.
For more information: seasmenschurch.org/ASIST, or call 212-349-1791.