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Support groups seeking to ease mental problems of Japanese youths at risk of suicide

Ayaka Ishii, leader of Light Ring, is pictured in this photo taken in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 19, 2016. (Mainichi)

While overall suicides have been gradually decreasing in Japan, the number of suicides among youths remains high. The top cause of death of those aged between 15 and 39 is suicide, while among those in their 20s, the number of suicides per 100,000 people has been hovering between somewhere around 15 and 25 for over 10 years.

Groups have been launched to combat this trend. One of them is Youth LINK, which is made up of students.

"I wouldn't be what I am now if I hadn't visited that place," says Takayuki Ishigami, 32, who became a system engineer after graduating from university this past spring.

Ishigami looks back on the past four years since he first attended a "Voice Sharing" session. He recalls that he was filled with a sense of relief, although he was unable to talk a lot because he was nervous.

Youth LINK holds a Voice Sharing session for students on the third Saturday of each month at a facility owned by the Chiyoda Ward Office. A total of 249 people have participated in its 59 sessions.

Five people including Ishigami attended the second session held in March 2012.

Under the rules on Voice Sharing sessions that Youth LINK members have worked out, attendees must not disclose what they talk about during a session, are supposed to talk about themselves and must not encourage or give advice to others. Only the person who is holding a stuffed animal put at the center of the group is allowed to talk and nobody else must interrupt.

"You don't have to say anything. We'll be glad if you can feel at ease," says Noriaki Matsumura, 22, a member of Youth LINK and a third-year university student.

Ishigami dropped out of two universities less than one year after he was admitted. He was enrolled in a third university where he was unable to make friends with other students and it became tough for him to attend classes. It was at that time that he learned of Voice Sharing from a newspaper article and participated in its second session.

"I was able to admit for the first time that I'm not good at building relations with other people. While listening to what other participants had to say, I realized that there is no difference in the levels of seriousness of problems people have," he says.

Sho Iwasaki, 25, a second-year graduate student who heads Youth LINK, says there are quite a few young people who are unsure of what they are worried about and are struggling to clearly explain their own problems.

"Such students have difficulties consulting with university counselors, and become isolated because their SOS calls are not accepted. This is why they need a place to share their stories among others of the same generation," Iwasaki says.

After attending several sessions of Voice Sharing, Ishigami joined Youth LINK because he wanted to support youths who had similar problems. The majority of the seven active members of Youth LINK, including Iwasaki and Matsumura, are former participants in Voice Sharing sessions.

Ishigami, who took a job after turning 30, says, "I frankly talked about my personal history during job interviews and the company where I work said, 'We decided to hire you because of your experiences.' I'd like to demonstrate to those who have similar problems that people like me can participate in working society."

Although he will leave Youth LINK because it is a students' organization, Ishigami is determined to continue to be involved in anti-suicide programs and offering secure places for young people.

Another organization, Light Ring, was established in 2012 as a nonprofit organization to extend assistance to those who support people in trouble.

There are cases where people become sick while supporting others who have mental problems. In one such case, a woman began to shut herself in her home and repeatedly hurt herself, and a man who had romantic feelings for her continued to interact with her with his phone even in the middle of the night in an effort to cheer her up. However, the man ended up becoming ill after devoting himself to supporting her, which further worsened her dependence on the man.

To support friends or partners who have problems, people need to maintain their own mental and physical health, maintain a proper distance from those suffering mental problems and have the skills to listen to what those they are supporting have to say.

Light Ring held 15 sessions to train people to support their friends or partners in trouble and 26 gatherings in which such supporters interact with each other. These events were attended by some 500 people. The organization, headquartered in Tokyo, has held such events in Iwate, Yamagata, Shizuoka, Fukuoka and other prefectures.

Those who have completed a 10-day specialized course are supposed to play a role of listening to people in the same age group who have trouble supporting their friends or partners. Thirty-two people are now engaging in such activities.

Ayaka Ishii, 27, who is a licensed psychiatric social worker, founded the predecessor of Light Ring when she was a university student. She suffered an eating disorder during her later elementary school years and lost her father, who was suffering from alcohol dependency, when she was a high school student.

Learning from these experiences, Ishii aspired to create a society in which each person could help someone else in trouble.

First, Ishii launched meetings at a cafe in the Omotesando district of downtown Tokyo to listen to what young people had to say about their problems. Surprisingly, many participants expressed concerns about their friends or partners. After she listened more carefully to their stories, these people began to talk about their own problems. This taught Ishii that it is difficult for most people to frankly talk about themselves.

During lectures, participants learn how to support those in trouble. This is aimed at encouraging young people who are worried about their relations with friends, partners and other people around them to participate in the sessions.

"Supporting your friends and partners in an appropriate way will also promote your own mental health," says Ishii.

Light Ring is aiming to gather evidence that supporting each other helps prevent mental illnesses, and thereby reform the social security system, which tends to place particular emphasis on treatments of diseases that have already broken out.

Analysis of the outcome of a survey conducted on 95 participants has confirmed that the sessions can help ease their tendencies of depression and enhance their happiness. Light Ring will announce its findings at an international academic society convention on mental health to be held in Ireland next year.

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