The first time I saw a suicide up front and close was as a young 2nd Mate on a large and fast ship. Walking up to take over my watch at midnight, I usually took the longer way up, going aft from my starboard side cabin down to the poop deck, and then walking up the outer companionways on the port side, up the decks to the Bridge Wings. This was not just a brief fire patrol walk but also helped one adjust to night-sight, wake up properly in the fresh air so brilliantly provided at sea, for what was and has always been known as the “ghost watch”, or midnight-to-4am.
Up on the Bridge, the drill was to walk from one wing to the other, check out the navigation lights and scan the dark for traffic and weather. Get oriented. Then enter the Bridge itself, where the outgoing 3rd Mate would usually be getting ready to hand-over Watch, while the quartermasters and night look-out would be doing the same. Scan radar, quick read weather and other messages, go over the charts. While most other watches at Sea saw some amount of other people coming up to the Bridge for one reason or the other, the Ghost Watch was usually 4 hours on uninterrupted bliss, lots of coffee and often a few drinks if that was what floated your boat, and soft music playing from some device or the other – usually on the Direction Finder.
One such midnight, I took over the watch, and was still inside the chart room going through the log books. Ambling out into the dark of the wheelhouse, with dials at minimal brightness, I suddenly heard my quartermaster shout – “Chief, chief, the 3rd Mate (by name) he jump”. There is a set procedure for both on bridge to follow when this happens, luckily the outgoing quartermaster was still on the Bridge – muscle reflex takes over – hit the alarm, call the Old Man, throw the lifebuoys overboard, start a Williamson turn, hit the engine room telegraph, put your messages out over the VHF, and run aft to let go some more lifebuoys as well as an inflatable life-raft. I can swear I made eye-contact, and that was the last anybody ever saw of him, though we were there, in the middle of the Med, with other ships, going round and round looking for him.
Of course, by the time we were 25 or so, my contemporaries and I had seen a fair number of people dying on and near ships. Our insurance rates were the same as those for fighter pilots, incidentally, or higher. One part was the high that the risk brought. +++ I’ve had a few more people who were close to me off themselves in the recent past. A very dear friend in his early ‘60s. The very young son of a friend in his ‘30s. The brightest database guy I ever knew in his ‘50s. And then there are, for some reason, a large number of unexplained deaths at sea which are often put down to suicide.
So why do people commit suicide?
I have been thinking about this for about 50 years now, since I was a cadet in 1973, when a neighbourhood friend, as bright as they come and studying at one of the best engineering colleges then and now, started experimenting with injecting himself with snake venom. The end, as was expected, was not far in coming. I think the fact that he had lost a father in a war just a few years ago never really resolved itself in his head.
Then I’ve lost count of the number of people I know who went from the career path to the needle in arm path and then down in the gutter path. For some reason, such episodes happened close to sea-ports globally, or maybe my training kept me on the lookout there. Junkies on a one-way ticket hanging around, looking for alms, there but for the Grace of God go I was the sentiment as we gave them something, knowing fully well that it would go to their next fix – or it could have been us.
How many people were stoned as they operated ships and planes in the years before blood tests for substances became common? And then some jumped.
So why do people commit suicide? The moment you type this question into a search engine – up pop all sorts of helpline numbers! Then you read the articles on the subject – and it emerges to me that they miss one important reason – some people probably commit suicide because they expect to emerge into a better afterlife somewhere unknown. This is a bit like – why do some people take up risky adventure sports, which can also be called “suicidal”? The momentary thrill is one possible reason, but there has to be something more, right?
Many religions promise a brilliant afterlife, full of joy and happiness, could that be a reason for some people to commit suicide? Do we need to control such religious positions, especially when they are pushed forward by the conversion industry, of religions promising all sorts of rewards after life is over – as different from religions which push a rebirth basis what you did in this life as a format.
Therefore, is there a need to control religions which promise a brilliant afterlife, for encouraging suicide? Who really knows what is there in the afterlife? Would people commit suicide that easily if they were convinced that their chances of a better re-birth were lower, or lowest?