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Amid call spike, some Japan mental health hotlines shorten hours, close due to virus

A counselor is seen working at Tokyo Inochi no Denwa in the capital's Chiyoda Ward on April 22, 2020. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- Emotional and mental health hotlines across Japan are seeing a spike in coronavirus-related calls, but some have been forced to shorten their hours or shut down temporarily due to the very same virus.

Of the 50 call centers affiliated with the Federation of Inochi no Denwa (literally "telephone of life"), 13 have shut down after the government declared a nationwide state of emergency. Some of the centers say they closed because of shortages of volunteer counselors caused by the request to refrain from traveling and going outdoors. Others said they have suspended operation to protect volunteers -- who must work on-site to prevent private information leaks -- from getting infected.

"We are very sorry to the people who are trying to reach us," said the secretariat of Tokyo Tama Inochi no Denwa, one of the currently shuttered centers.

The counselors at Tokyo Inochi no Denwa in the capital's Chiyoda Ward were told they did not have to go on duty as coming into the call center could increase their chance of infection. At least half of the approximately 250 counselors, whose average age is over 60, are now on leave.

For the first time in its 48-year history, covering economic crises and natural disasters, the center was unable to continue 24-hour operations. A 67-year-old woman who has been working as a counselor for 26 years and remained on duty said, "I think that not coming here would fulfill the government's request, but if I think about the people who call us, I can't just leave."

Since April, novel coronavirus-related calls have been increasing day by day. The previous month, about 10%-20% of phone and email consultations concerned the pandemic, but that jumped to nearly half in April. There has been an increase in emails from people in their 40s -- the most socially active demographic.

Many people apparently talk about fear of losing their jobs due to the novel coronavirus, or deteriorating family relationships because of arguments over how to discipline children, among other issues, as increasing numbers of people are teleworking or told to stay at home.

The Tokyo Inochi no Denwa secretariat said, "When people see the real economic effect (of the coronavirus pandemic), we might receive more inquiries about specific situations. We would like to respond to as many people as possible, and make them feel less insecure."

The center can be contacted by phone at 03-3264-4343, or by email through its official website (in Japanese).

(Japanese original by Toshiki Miyama, Photo Group)

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