According to the Japanese government's preliminary figures, 20,919 people in Japan took their own lives in 2020, the first annual increase in 11 years. A startling increase was seen among women and school children. These tragic figures suggest that those groups have been hit particularly hard by the economic and social malaise inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.
There were around 7,000 suicides among women in 2020. That is about half the number of men who killed themselves, but still represents a 15% increase from 2019. It's also in stark contrast to the 11 years of consecutive decline in men's suicide numbers. Many women are non-regular workers, a part of the labor force more likely to be hit hard by an economic slump. An increase in domestic violence cases, seen as people stayed at home because of the pandemic, is also likely to have contributed to the rise in women's suicides.
Within child suicides, there was an especially large surge among high school students. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare pointed to worries regarding post-graduation career or academic choices and poor academic performance as likely causes, but increased stress at home during nationwide school closures last spring has been named as one possible cause.
Catching early signs of emotional shifts and extending a helping hand is extremely important in suicide prevention. But the pandemic has restricted our contact with others, making interventions more difficult. And as Japan continues to grapple with its third wave of infections, expanding support is indispensable.
There are also ever more factors that could trigger depression brought on by the coronavirus crisis. We would like to see people helping out those around them who show signs of depression, so they can get to a doctor as quickly as possible.
There is also a need to strengthen measures to monitor patients recuperating at home, and to create a psychological care system for medical workers locked in the struggle with the virus day after exhausting day.
But the rising suicide figure is not due solely to the coronavirus's impact. According to a survey by one nonprofit organization, most of those who killed themselves faced diverse problems, and about 70% of them had been using some kind of consultation service. Local governments ought to be playing a major role in suicide prevention.
In Tokyo's Adachi Ward, administrative service desks listen to people's problems and then involve the relevant municipal government department to help, creating a thoroughgoing response system. Staff have also been given training on spotting signs of suicide risk.
There are also places where, if a young person searches the phrase "I want to die" online, contact information for counseling services is automatically brought up.
If the coronavirus economic slump continues for long, we may see yet higher suicide numbers. We need countermeasures interweaving social welfare, education, employment and other areas. The central and local governments must overcome the limitations imposed by the pandemic, and make sure help gets to people who need it.