Suicide rates rise in Japan among women and youth as a result of the pandemic

According to government data, the number of suicides in August increased by 15.4 per cent to 1,854. Despite a lower rate, the number of women who commit suicide has increased by about 40 per cent. The number of students, from elementary to high school, taking their own lives has more than doubled compared to the same period last year.

Oct 12, 2020

TOKYO: Japan’s suicide rise shows that coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on women, teenage girls and children.

Economically, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has disproportionately affected women, who are more likely to be in irregular employment in retail or service industries. They represent almost 66 per cent of recent job losses in Japan.

Japan is one of the few major economies to regularly release data on suicide, which remains a major societal issue.

The data point to what may be happening around the world as countries grapple with the fallout from mass unemployment and social isolation that is impacting certain groups of people more than others.

In Japan, the suicide rate has been steadily falling but it remains a top cause of premature deaths – more than 13,000 this year compared to less than 2,000 for COVID-19.

According to government data, the number of suicides jumped in August by 15.4 per cent to 1,854. Although a smaller proportion, the number of women taking their own lives jumped by about 40 per cent. The number of suicides of students in elementary to high school more than doubled to 59 from the same period last year.

“Up-to-date suicide numbers can help quickly determine which groups are at high-risk,” said Yasuyuki Sawada, the chief economist at Asian Development Bank and a University of Tokyo professor who has written books on suicide prevention and on its economic impact.

In his view, “If local governments can determine which age group or what occupations are showing higher risks for suicides, suicide prevention measures can be implemented swiftly.”

A US study released in May predicted as many as 75,000 additional people could die in the next decade from “deaths of despair” as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

A study released in September by the Suicide Prevention India Foundation found that in the South Asian nation, 65 per cent of therapists reported an increase in self-harm and suicide ideation among patients since the pandemic began.

The pandemic disrupted mental health services for vulnerable groups in more than 60 per cent of 130 countries surveyed by the World Health Organisation.

The trend in Japan reveals that the pandemic’s adding new, potentially deadly stressors: calls to domestic violence helplines have risen as families remain trapped at home together.

Neighbouring South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate in the OECD, saw a spike in women taking their own lives in March, April and June, though the overall number of suicides between January and July declined compared to the year before.

Usually, women are more affected by depression than men who suffer more from addiction. Thus, the prolonged pandemic probably explains the rise in women’s suicide rate, said Paik Jong-woo, the head of Korea’s Suicide Prevention Centre.

For Toshihiko Matsumoto, director of the Drug Dependence Research department at Japan’s National Institute of Mental Health, “Public health and infectious disease prevention measures aren’t enough to save lives on their own””

In his view, there is a need for spaces where people can be away from family pressure whilst also avoiding crowded conditions with infection risk.

Children present an even more complex picture. Pressured by the pandemic, stressed-out parents “may be missing signs from their children and not being compassionate enough about their problems”, said Mayumi Hangai, a doctor at the National Centre for Child Health and Development who has surveyed children’s stress levels during the coronavirus.

Any stress or unhappiness displayed by a parent could also transfer to their children, who lack social outlets when schools are closed and extracurricular activities are unavailable.

Although Japan has seen suicides drop overall for the past decade, youth under 20 are the only age cohort to have seen an increase.

In Asia, the toll could be compounded by greater stigma around mental health issues compared to western societies. In Japan, for example, there is social pressure not to show one’s feelings and true self.

With respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, suicides at first dropped in the spring during a state of emergency ordered by the government to curb the spread of the virus. A collective solidarity like that inspired by wars and natural disasters also emerged.

But when the economy started reopening, portions of the population were left behind – such as laid-off workers or those who continued to be stuck at home

In Japan, schools restarted in June after a three-month closure, which saw an increase in reports of bullying and added stress about catching up on schoolwork.

“Children feel even more pressured to catch up with the delay,” said Hiroyuki Nishino, the head of Tamariba, a non-profit organisation that helps struggling kids.

The disruption caused by COVID-19 is exacerbating the deeply rooted phenomenon of futoko – children refusing to go to school. Such kids are at high risk for suicide. “We’ve heard kids as young as five years old talking about dying or wanting to disappear,” Nishino said.

According to Lifelink, a Tokyo-based non-profit organisation that runs a suicide helpline, about 20 per cent of calls received from May to August were from children in elementary, middle and high schools.

Messaging apps have been effective for children to reach out for help as some can use these without parental knowledge, said Yasuyuki Shimizu, the head of Lifelink. This is especially crucial when the issue is domestic violence.

In July, the Japanese government allocated a supplementary budget of 1.1 billion yen (US$ 10.4 million) for suicide prevention on top of the 2.6 billion yen (US$ 2.5 million) approved in April.

The governments of Japan and South Korea, despite bitter disputes over trade and territorial rights, also regularly exchange ideas on suicide prevention strategies, this according to an official at the Korea Suicide Prevention Centre.

Funding and investment in mental health infrastructure to serve vulnerable populations is urgently needed in COVID-19’s wake, experts note.

The World Health Organisation reports that mental health services are chronically underfunded everywhere, even though studies show that investing US into care for depression and anxiety can return US in economic productivity.

“Financial support from the government is important, but so is recognising that mental health is an issue,” ADB’s Sawada said. “Measures to address mental health should be a pillar of public health policy as well.”––Asia News

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