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Schools take action against rising pandemic-linked student suicides

This photo shows a sample image of a software application titled "weather of the heart" to check students' mental health. (Photo courtesy of the Osaka city education board/Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Schools across Japan are stepping up measures against student suicides that have been on the rise amid the coronavirus pandemic, holding sessions about mental health and using technology to help students report their moods.

    Japan logged a record-high 499 student suicides last year amid the pandemic, with many believed to have felt lonely during school closures that lasted for months to prevent the virus spread. The figure for the first half of 2021 was higher than a year ago, government data showed.

    At a mental health educational session organized by a junior high school in western Japan's Wakayama Prefecture in March, a school counselor explained to around 140 students how to spot signs they may be developing mental health conditions.

    The counselor Eriko Fujita, 54, who is also a certified psychologist, advised the second-graders to look out for changes in habits, such as eating more desserts and spending more time with pets.

    "You can learn about your mental condition by noticing changes in your physical health and behavior," Fujita said.

    A high school girl who was invited to join the session to speak about her experiences said she had reached out to local authorities when she felt her mental health was deteriorating.

    "It is not embarrassing to send out an SOS," she said.

    Since the session, more students at the school, which is affiliated with Wakayama University's Faculty of Education, have consulted with teachers about mental health.

    "Awareness that it is important to seek help has spread," Fujita said.

    Osaka city's education board introduced in April a software application titled "weather of the heart" to check students' mental health. The app is loaded onto tablet computers used by all children at elementary and junior high schools run by the western Japan city.

    In the morning assembly, students can choose one option out of "sunny," "cloudy," "rain" and "thunder" to indicate how they feel that day. The results are automatically sent to teachers' devices, informing them about changes in the mood of students who picked a different option from before.

    "It can be helpful for young teachers with less teaching experience," said a member of the education board.

    By month, the highest number of student suicide cases in 2020 was reported in August at 65, followed by 55 in September, the data showed. The figures suggest students feel most under pressure psychologically when they return to school after the long summer vacation.

    Tetsuro Noda, a professor at Hyogo University of Teacher Education, said, "While it is important to facilitate an environment so students can easily send out an SOS (for help), schools are required to prepare a system to carefully respond to such calls."

    "The government needs to expand assistance at schools by increasing the number of teachers or counselors," Noda added.

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