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Depression, suicide and COVID-19

By: ATTY. DENNIS R. GORECHO - Columnist/CDN Digital | May 26,2020 - 07:00 AM

Suicide reports due to depression are sad manifestations of the  negative mental health effects  of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak.

Pandemic anxiety can be overwhelming which if not handled properly may become emotional, physical and economic catastrophes.

On May 10, a 39-year-old Ukrainian crew member on the Regal Princess ship died after jumping overboard while the ship was anchored off Rotterdam, Netherlands.

This was followed by news of a crew member who jumped off Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas ship while it was near Greece late last month. His body was never found.

Although the suicide incidents can be considered as isolated cases, it can not be denied that emotional and financial stressors are well-recognized risk factors for suicide.

For many seafarers, the primary source of their depression is initially connected with repatriation issues, as they wait for news about the schedule of  their journey home and see their families again. Airline and port restrictions have made the repatriation process difficult. In some instances, travelling is almost impossible because most international air traffic is grounded. Similarly, many cruise lines suspended their operations to mitigate the spread of the pandemic.

Fear of the unknown and uncertainty of their future is compounded by  the repeated COVID-19 outbreaks on ships, the anxiety of contracting the virus and the company’s inability to provide  them  adequate protection and reliable information.

They also had to deal with financial issues, like the alteration or non-payment of their contractual monetary benefits, especially those with expired employment contracts who have been forced into continued labor aboard ships.

Actual repatriation to the Philippines did not stop the emotional stress to some of the OFWs, as the  return to respective homes are still in limbo.

Repatriated OFWs have to wait for the results of their COVID-19 tests before they can return home.

Cruise ships are presently at the Manila Bay anchorage area with thousands of Filipino seafarers waiting for the clearance. Some are billeted in quarantine facilities. Some of the stranded OFWs complained about their continued stay at the facilities that already exceeded  the recommended 14-day quarantine.

The Department of Health attributed the delay in the release  of the tests results to encoding issues and slow pace of testing. Sadly, one  OFW from Kuwait committed suicide inside a temporary quarantine facility in Pasay City.

The COVID19 pandemic validates the 2019 “Seafarer Mental Health Study” conducted by Yale University funded by the ITF Seafarers’ Trust that  has identified worrisome levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts among seafarers. It revealed a link between depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts and a greater likelihood of injury and illness on board.

Factors cited included lack of adequate training, an uncaring work environment, low job satisfaction, and existing medical conditions. Stress causes the immune systems to weaken, inducing one to be more susceptible to illness, both mental and physical. The study noted that seafarers with depression reported less control over their work, less ability to set their own work pace or influence decisions.

Depression is a mental state associated with loss of interest, feelings of helplessness or worthlessness and heightened levels of anxiety. If left untreated, depression can lead to considerable impairments in an individual’s ability to take care of his or her everyday responsibilities.

In extreme cases, depression can lead to suicidal tendencies and actual suicide.

Under the POEA contract, the employer is liable to pay the heirs of the deceased seafarer for death benefits once it is established that he died during the effectivity of his employment contract. However, the employer may be exempt from liability if it can successfully prove that the seaman’s death was caused by an injury directly attributable to his deliberate, criminal  or willful act.

If the cause of death is closely related to depression due to COVID-19, its compensability will be a debatable issue. 

In Leonis Navigation vs. Obrero (G.R. No. 192754, September 07, 2016), the Court ruled that work-related stress may precipitate the disorder noting that the seafarer’s prolonged stint at sea eventually taxed his coping abilities which rendered him incapable of handling the stress.

Nevertheless, the heirs must be paid either US$10,000 (natural death) or US$15,000 (accidental death) under the Compulsory Insurance Coverage of  Republic Act 10022 or the amended Migrant Workers Act (Amwa) whether or not there is a suicide issue as cause of death.


Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email 
[email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786).

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