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Municipal assemblyman with panic disorder promotes anti-suicide measures

Yokosuka Municipal Assembly Member Hideaki Fujino promotes a telephone consultation service in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Dec. 23, 2017. (Mainichi)

YOKOSUKA, Kanagawa -- A municipal assembly member here who has psychiatric conditions that include panic disorder has been working hard to promote anti-suicide measures after losing his girlfriend to suicide.

    Hideaki Fujino, 43, a fourth-term local assemblyman and licensed psychiatric social worker, has been taking a proactive approach in trying to prevent suicides as his personal mission.

    "There are as many worries as there are people. You and your loved ones are welcome to consult with us," shouts out Fujino, as he stands outside Keikyu Yokosuka-chuo Station in late December 2017. There, he was promoting the municipal government's "Yokosuka Kokoro no Denwa" consultation service, while holding a sign with the telephone number of the service displayed in large writing.

    Every year, during the 12-day period between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3, Fujino goes out onto the streets of Yokosuka alone, where he promotes the city's anti-suicide measures. He has been doing this for the past 12 years. The reason for picking this time of year is that he feels that some people's sense of loneliness and battle to live becomes all the worse due to generally positive atmosphere in society -- and also because the city hall and relevant support groups usually close doors for the year.

    When Fujino was in elementary and junior high school, he spent many hours in the school nurse's office due to factors such as bullying. Later in his academic career, he decided to study psychology at university in order to help out his high-school sweetheart who had schizophrenia.

    Fujino developed a panic disorder when he was doing job-hunting for after graduation. The condition made him hyperventilate when getting on trains or entering confined spaces -- causing him to repeat a year at university. In 1998, he graduated from university and started working for a major film company, but later developed depression during his third year on the job due to work-related stress.

    Then, in November 2002, his girlfriend, who was supposed to be recovering from schizophrenia, took her own life.

    Determined to eliminate suicide, Fujino set about switching to a politically focused career. He quit his corporate job and was elected to the Yokosuka Municipal Assembly in April 2003. In December that year, he informed the assembly meeting that he had lost someone to suicide, and proposed that the city create a free telephone consultation service designed to prevent suicides. In the following year, the municipal government started "Kokoro no Denwa" consultation service. Over the past few years, the service has received nearly 5,000 calls every year.

    Today, Fujino is still receiving psychiatric treatment. He occasionally has symptoms such as tremors -- so he tends to increase the dosage of his medication, in accordance with his doctor's orders, on days where there he has a plenary assembly or committee meeting.

    "The world doesn't cut you slack simply because you have 'a psychiatric disorder.' If people like me who have gone on record (as a patient) are considered sloppy, then all psychiatric patients might end up being regarded as sloppy," Fujino says.

    With this thought in his mind, Fujino has managed to ask questions at all plenary sessions he has been at over the past 15 years or so.

    "Anyone can develop a psychiatric disorder. My guess is that there are other assembly members in Japan out there with such illnesses. If more assembly members come out, then I believe we can create a society that is easier to live in for everybody," he says positively.

    According to a 2017 government report on people with disabilities, roughly 3.92 million people, or about 3.1 percent of all citizens in Japan, face restrictions in their everyday lives due to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. To help such patients fit into society, the Act on Employment Promotion etc. of Persons with Disabilities, which requires companies and organization to hire certain numbers of people with disabilities, was revised in 2013. Starting in April this year, in addition to those with physical and intellectual disabilities, those with psychiatric disorders will be covered by the revised law's employment stipulations. However, a survey conducted between September and October 2017 by recruiting and staffing company en-japan Inc. showed that 48 percent of respondent firms did not know about the requirement to hire those with psychiatric disorders.

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