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Zama victims spotlight problems facing suicide prevention hotlines

A woman at an "Inochi no Denwa" hotline center takes a call in Saitama on Nov. 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

With women who revealed a wish to die over SNS making up most of the victims in the Zama dismemberment case, the tough conditions of suicide prevention hotlines nationwide and how they care for those who call them have come to the forefront.

Japan's "Inochi no Denwa," suicide prevention hotlines nationwide, are continually bombarded with consultation calls, and are having difficulty catching up with the demand. Last year, "Saitama Inochi no Denwa" took the most calls of anywhere in Japan at roughly 28,000 calls. Every day, heartbreaking consultations like, "I've attempted to kill myself before, and just like I thought, my only option is to die," and "I impulsively jumped onto the train tracks," come into the five phones operated by about 300 volunteers 24 hours a day. Supervisor Takeshi Naito said, "As the content of the calls becomes more serious, the time it takes to talk with each person has become longer."

The center logged a total of 15,400 hours of consultations last year at 33 minutes per person -- the longest ever for the hotline. The number of cases decreased from the record high of approximately 31,000 in 2013, but because the time taken per person has increased, there is a possibility that the number of people who call but get a busy signal has increased instead. A past survey found that only 3 to 4 percent of calls can be answered.

"There were cases where someone who hinted at suicide were thankful because they 'could pour out their feelings' to someone," recalled a 79-year-old woman who has been involved with Inochi no Denwa for over 40 years. "I think relationships between people are weakening, and those simply starved for someone to talk to are increasing."

According to the Tokyo-based Federation of Inochi no Denwa (FIND), calls reached a record high of roughly 760,000 cases in 2012 after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster in eastern Japan. Last year, the number had dropped to some 680,000 people. However, when considering the content of the calls, the proportion of high-risk cases, such as those with a history of attempting to take their own life or expressing their wish to die, has risen to 11.5 percent. The ratio has grown from only about 2 percent in the 1990s.

The victims involved in the case in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, were all in their teens and 20s. FIND says that the percentage of people in their 20s or younger calling the hotlines has dropped from 23 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2016. However, when an email-based hotline was set up in 2016, the majority of users were young people, and the ratio of high-risk cases hit the 40 percent range.

"Young people feel more familiar with text-based consultations," a FIND representative said. "We would like to analyze the needs of young people."

According to Ministry of Heath, Labor and Welfare statistics, the number of suicides which hovered above 30,000 per year up to 2011 was 21,897 cases in 2016. Even then, the rate of people who killed themselves in 2014 was 19.5 per 100,000 people, the sixth highest in the world.

"Even if the number of suicides falls, those who feel anxiety, despair and loneliness have not necessarily decreased, so we must still be cautious," said Seizo Fukuyama, an emeritus professor of clinical psychology at Rikkyo University. "Younger generations pour out their feelings on social media and other platforms, and we need to consider a new avenue for them to come forward that reflects this change in communication methods."

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