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Japan gov't, groups strengthen suicide prevention amid pandemic economic slump

Notes and other items of bereaved family members of people who took their own lives are seen on display at the Edogawa City Library in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward, in this Sept. 1, 2020 photo. (Mainichi/Hitomi Tanimoto)

TOKYO -- As a deterioration in economic conditions and other negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic take a further toll on people's lives in Japan, there are growing calls to prevent an increase in suicide rates, which apparently tend to spike at times of economic downturns and rises in unemployment.

    According to the National Police Agency (NPA), the provisional figure of suicide cases in August rose by 15.7% compared to the same period last year, and the government has stated that "the risk of suicide could increase." Nongovernment organizations and other groups making suicide prevention efforts are receiving more and more inquiries.

    "There are no customers at the eatery I opened this spring. I have no choice but to close it," a woman, who called Befrienders Osaka -- a nonprofit organization in the western Japan city -- in July, said in a heart-wrenching voice. She faced a tough situation as her business wasn't attracting many customers due to the spread of the coronavirus. "I worked so hard for its opening," said the woman, who was apparently too tired to even find motivation to search for a new job.

    Befrienders Osaka says inquiries related to the new coronavirus began increasing in July, and the number of requests for consultations has increased by around 30% overall since the pandemic emerged.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government's health promotion division is providing consultations via a hotline and social media for residents and workers in the capital as part of suicide prevention measures. The division also says "the number of inquiries is on the rise compared to the previous year."

    The NPA says suicide cases have been continuing to decrease in recent years, and saw the lowest number of 20,169 people in 2019 since figures began to be recorded in 1978. Though suicide cases decreased by 17.7% during the peak of the "first wave" of novel coronavirus infections in April compared to the same period last year, the figure in July was similar to that of the previous year, and the number increased by 251 cases to 1,854 people in August. Of the cases in August, 651 people who took their own lives were women, which is a 40.3% increase compared to the same month in 2019.

    The government is demanding a boost in suicide prevention measures, saying "there have been signs of an upward trend since July."

    People have pointed out the correlation between the number of suicides and the economic situation and unemployment rate, such as the surge in cases in the late 1990s after the collapse of the "bubble economy." This year, the unemployment rate, which was 2.4% in February, rose to 3% in August and the number of unemployed people in Japan reached some 2.06 million.

    Masaharu Maeda, a professor of disaster mental health at Fukushima Medical University, explained that "the main reason for the recent increase (in suicide cases) might be unemployment." Such people could lose their homes due to unemployment, and are in danger of mental and physical deterioration by not being able to receive help and becoming isolated, among other negative consequences. Non-regular employees who face the problem of dismissal and termination of employment contracts are mostly women, and Maeda says "it may be related to the increase of suicide cases among women in August."

    Efforts to prevent suicides are also being affected by the coronavirus prevention measure of physical distancing. "Mokuteki no aru Tabi," a nonprofit organization based in the northern Japan prefecture of Akita, canceled an event allowing young people to freely discuss about their concerns in April and May. Though it was resumed in June, there was a time where only one person participated. It is the first time in their eight-year history to experience such a situation, and director Tsuyoshi Kusano commented, "Participants are decreasing due to fear of infection. Human relationships are now easily falling apart."

    Due to such situations, citizens' groups and municipal governments are trying to strengthen systems to provide consultations, including those given via social media. To support such efforts, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has allocated 870 million yen (roughly $8.24 million) to the second supplementary budget for this fiscal year.

    (Japanese original by Hitomi Tanimoto and Go Kumagai, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

    -- List of suicide prevention hotlines

    Yorisoi Hotline (English, Tagalog, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, Vietnamese, Nepali, Indonesian and other languages): 0120-279-338

    A specialized line for foreigners in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures: 0120-279-226

    Yorisoi Chat: https://yorisoi-chat.jp/

    ***

    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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