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Editorial: Japan needs stronger safety nets to prevent suicides amid pandemic

Concerns are running high over a potential increase in suicides in Japan as people struggle to make a living and face other difficulties as containment of the coronavirus pandemic remains nowhere in sight.

    According to the National Police Agency and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the number of suicides this year began increasing in July compared to the previous year. The preliminary figure for the month of August was 1,849, up 246 from the same time last year.

    Between January and June, the number of suicides in Japan dropped by roughly 10% compared to the same six-month period in 2019, but an expert says this is because in the pandemic's initial stage, people's sense of self-defense was enhanced, as they felt their own lives were threatened. It was also pointed out that people's stress levels decreased during the period as they had fewer opportunities to see others.

    However, if this situation becomes prolonged and a greater number of people are reduced to poverty due to sluggishness in the economy or become mentally unstable, Japan could see a significant upward trend in suicides.

    The number of workers who have been laid off or have had their contracts terminated for coronavirus-related reasons has topped 60,000. Meanwhile, many small- and mid-size businesses and shops have been driven to close down after facing cash-flow difficulties. There are concerns that these small business owners may end up with multiple debts as a result of insufficient public financial aid.

    What is especially worrying is suicides among women. Overall, the number of suicides is larger among men, but in Japan 650 women killed themselves in August, up some 40% from the year before. The same trend can be seen in South Korea, and experts point out that worsening employment for women could be one of the reasons. Detailed analysis is necessary.

    In response to the increasing number of suicides, the health ministry has called on those who are feeling uneasy to contact hotlines.

    Meanwhile, nonprofit groups working on suicide prevention have also been hit by the pandemic. Many of them have had no choice but to scale down their consulting services or are facing a lack of funding. The central government needs to extend generous support, including financial aid.

    As circumstances that can contribute to higher suicide risks -- family issues, age and job status -- differ from region to region, local governments can play a major role in preventing people from taking their own lives. We would like to see such public entities work with the private sector to reexamine conventional safety nets.

    Applications to receive interest-free loans for households that have seen a decrease in their income have poured into social welfare councils at municipal governments that function as points of contact for the loan program. These financial aid programs need to be expanded.

    Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has set out "self-help, mutual help and public help" as the central government's principle, and he seems to place particular emphasis on "self-help." When it comes to suicide prevention, however, the government should put considerable weight on "public help" and put efforts in building more tightly woven safety nets to save lives.

    * * *

    -- Suicide prevention hotline in Japan with English support

    TELL Japan (English): https://telljp.com/

    Telephone hotline: 03-5774-0992 (Daily)

    Online chat: https://telljp.com/lifeline/tell-chat/

    Counseling inquiries: 03-4550-1146 (Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-3 p.m.)

    A selection of emergency numbers with multilingual support is also provided at the bottom of their home page.

    *Operating hours for the telephone hotline and online chat depend on the day and are subject to change. Check the Facebook page linked below for up-to-date information:

    https://www.facebook.com/telljapan/

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