RNLI Teddington marks 20 years since its establishment following the Marchioness disaster, but today mental health is the deadliest reason for distress on the Thames.
The venal, sinuous groove of the River Thames has carved out a path spanning 215 miles, flowing through parts of the south of England, including London. It draws thousands of tourists each year and is spirited with activity from early-morning rowers to late-night party-boat-goers.
Teddington’s lifeboat station is located on the north bank of the river, nestled amongst towering modern apartments, and easily overlooked. It was established in 2002 following the Marchioness disaster which resulted in the deaths of 51 people. The Marchioness, a pleasure steamer, was hit by another vessel, sinking, within 30 seconds between Cannon Street Railway Bridge and Southwark Bridge. In a direct response to this, four new lifeboat station were set up on the river, and run by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution: Gravesend, Tower, Chiswick and Teddington.
This January, the London RNLI lifeboat stations will be celebrating 20 years since their establishment. But, whilst the Marchioness disaster has not been repeated in the last two decades, distress calls have been increasing.
According to the Port of London Authority, suicide is the most frequent cause of drowning in the River Thames, accounting for 90% of all deaths. Matt Allchurch, the lifeboat operations manager at Teddington RNLI station, confirms that 80-90% of shouts are associated with mental health. Matt explains that “shouts” are the RNLI’s term for calls to the RNLI signalling a distressed individual, or group, by the river. As a volunteer with the RNLI for 12 years, Matt said that he has seen this trend “getting increasingly worse”.
The twee, picturesque town of Teddington is a teenage dream during the summer. As the weather warms up, leisure activities on the river return, and so do the youths partaking in dangerous riverside behaviour. Summertime activities on the river, however, do not explain the rise in calls, says Matt.
“There’s a lot more people on the water, but we don’t tend to get that many shouts to them because they sort of help each other out. I try and explain to the kids that it’s dangerous, but we don’t get an awful lot of shouts to those sorts of things,” said Matt.
“It tends to be there’s a lot of mental health, self-harm type scenarios, and they mostly are after dark”, said Matt. He suggested that the pandemic also influenced the number of shout-outs the lifeboat station has been receiving.
“A lot of our shouts are to vulnerable people and, I think covid’s made that worse because you’re unhappy when locked down and stuck inside on your own. It’s been getting increasingly worse since I’ve been here.”
Teddington is a relatively prosperous, suburban town in the London Brough of Richmond-Upon-Thames. 2.6% of the Teddington Ward was unemployed in the 2011 official census, whilst 7.4% were unemployed in England that same year. But, affluence may not provide immunity to mental health issues.
Sophie Belle, founder of Mind You Club in Richmond, said: “The coast of living has been increasing and it’s all relative. Yes, they might be worrying about their child’s private school, whereas someone who doesn’t have money can’t pay their bills. It’s still what you’re used to. And I think there is a shame around the worrying.”
This also raises questions around the mental health of the volunteers themselves. The crew are required to live within three minutes of the station to launch the boat and reach their destination within 15 minutes. If a shout is made from Hampton Court, at the top of the station’s patch, 15 minutes includes the pager going off, getting dressed, getting into the station, getting changed into PPE, launching the lifeboat and travelling seven miles to Hampton Court on the river via Teddington lock.
Many of these volunteers also have other jobs, some of these include ex-police officers, architects, teachers, bankers and project managers. It is evident that the crew have placed an emphasis on a sense of community and have created a support system. Some members of the crew have also been given training in trauma management.
Gianna Saccomani, the deputy press officer of the RNLI Teddington branch, said: “We now have training on how we deal with pulling a dead body out the water, which we have to do sometimes. We’re very good here, we reach out to each other and we say, are you okay?”
As a matter of strict policy, the RNLI are unable to provide too many details on suicide attempts to prevent copycat acts, Gianna shares a story involving a colleague to demonstrate how the RNLI are able to prevent suicide attempts on the river.
“I remember Chris had one shout and it was a young woman who was on top of a bridge. He went up to her and he said, ‘do you want a cup of tea?’ And they just walked off into Kingston, and they got a cup of tea. It makes people realise also, you know, ‘what am I doing here? Actually, this is not what I want to do.’ It’s quite often a cry for help.”
If you have been experiencing suicidal thoughts to would like to speak to someone, the Samaritans are available to talk 24/7 on this free number: 116 123
For more information on the Samaritans, please click here.
Watch ‘Saving Lives At Sea’, which follows the men and women of the RNLI to find out more. Episode are available on BBC iPlayer.