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Suicide prevention hotlines in Japan see call spike, advise people to talk about concerns

A smartphone screen shows a tweet in late April by a woman from Chiba Prefecture using a hashtag to express her suicidal thoughts, in this partially modified photo taken on April 27, 2020. (Mainichi/Kenji Tatsumi)

TOKYO -- Groups providing consultations for people with suicidal thoughts in Japan are receiving one call after another amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, primarily from individuals who say they cannot make ends meet due to pay cuts, or feel lonely due to having less opportunities to meet with others.

An official from one such body warned, "People thinking about suicide may increase further due to the extension of the state of emergency. Please don't take it all on yourself and consult us."

A Tokyo resident in her 40s who runs an information technology-related company said she thought of taking the lives of her children and killing herself after the firm's business performance deteriorated. She first started thinking about suicide around late March.

Since late February, many clients have canceled the supply orders for new systems due to concerns about the future of the economy. Monthly sales in March dropped to almost zero from the usual 6-7 million yen. The woman took out loans of around 4 million yen from a consumer finance company and other firms to pay the salary of the about 20 employees.

In April her company could not properly operate due to the spread of the coronavirus. She also began using her husband's salary and the family's savings as operating funds, but has barely any money left. Although the woman was able to secure enough money to pay her employees in May, she is left worrying about the future beyond that month. Her health has deteriorated, and she was diagnosed as having an adjustment disorder.

She has saved a note on her computer indicating her will, such as not wanting her family to hold a funeral for her and that her insurance papers are stored in the bookshelf attached to her desk. She has put her dog, which she raised for about seven years, in the hands of a welfare organization.

The woman says she cannot easily choose death, as it means leaving behind her two children. But she cannot stop thinking that she may be able to leave her insurance money to her family if she kills herself.

In a separate case, a 31-year-old unemployed woman living on her own in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo says she is not feeling well mentally due to the prolonged period of self-restraint from outdoor activities.

She has a mental disorder, and visits the doctor regularly. Her source of motivation was meeting with a friend about once a week, but she had not seen her friend after Japan declared the state of emergency. She now visits the hospital less often, and her anxiety is rising due to her lonely environment.

The woman is able to laugh along while listening to a radio program that features her favorite comedian, but says, "I feel like dying when I think about this situation continuing for months."

Yorisoi Hotline, which can be contacted at 0120-279-338 (in Japanese) and has a special communication line for people feeling suicidal, has been receiving one call after another. According to one of its operators Lifelink, a Tokyo-based incorporated nonprofit organization providing support measures to prevent suicide, there were only six consultations related to the new coronavirus in February. The figure shot up to 23 in March and soared to 156 in April.

Lifelink says most people talk about their concerns being fueled by the spread of the virus, not being able to make a living due to unemployment and other reasons, or becoming stressed out because of deteriorating family relationships as a result of having to stay at home. Lifelink head Yasuyuki Shimizu said, "When providing consultations, we keep in mind to try to avoid the same situation as in 1998, when Japan saw the suicide of over 30,000 people for the first time due to the economic downturn."

Hirotsugu Sanpei, executive director of Fukushima Inochi no Denwa, which can be contacted at 024-536-4343 (in Japanese), commented, "More people tend to think about suicide when things get settled and they come face to face with their concerns, which was also the case after the Great East Japan Earthquake." He added, "But only a small fraction of those people actually consult us. We will listen to you carefully, so please talk to us about your worries. Just doing so could offer you a ray of hope."

(Japanese original by Kenji Tatsumi and Kazuki Mogami, City News Department)

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