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No. of suicides in Japan increased 8,000 due to pandemic: study

This Aug. 20, 2021 file photo shows electric boards announcing that a COVID-19 state of emergency has been declared in Fukuoka Prefecture, at a subway station in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The coronavirus pandemic led to 8,000 more suicides in Japan between March 2020 and June 2022 than would have been expected without it, a recent study calculated.

    Women in their 20s saw the largest rise, but women aged 19 or younger also saw a significant increase, according to the study conducted by a team of researchers including Taisuke Nakata, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo.

    COVID-19 restrictions were adopted in Tokyo and other areas until March this year, asking people to refrain from traveling across prefectural boundaries and urging restaurants and bars to close early.

    "Women, who have more nonregular jobs than men, tend to be more affected economically, while young people are possibly more likely to be forced into isolation due to behavioral restrictions," Nakata said.

    The number of suicides totaled around 21,000 in both 2020 and 2021, according to government data, up from around 20,000 in the preceding two years. But the impact of the coronavirus pandemic had been unclear.

    In Japan, economic hardship is believed to be one of the drivers of the suicide rate, as deaths tend to increase when the unemployment rate rises.

    The team estimated the expected number of suicides for the period based on past trends with fluctuations in employment factored in. It then compared that number with the actual figure and found a likely increase of 8,088.

    People in their 20s had the largest number of suicides related to the pandemic at 1,837, of whom 1,092 were women. This type of suicide accounted for about 30 percent of total suicides for the age group.

    Those 19 years old or younger accounted for 377 of the pandemic-related suicides, of whom 282 were women.

    Although suicides in Japan decreased by between 500 and 3,000 annually from 2010, the trend shifted upward in 2020 for the first time in 11 years. The figure remained almost the same in 2021.

    While suicides among men declined for the 12th consecutive year, those by women increased for the second straight year. Suicides by elementary, junior high and high school students hit a record high of 499 in 2020 and remained at an inflated level.

    With the government adopting strict restrictions to curb infections, the nation's unemployment rate remained at a high level.

    According to the government, the unemployment rate has been hovering between around 2.5 and 3.0 percent since March 2020, when infections started to increase across the country, higher than the rate of about 2.4 percent expected in forecasts made before the pandemic.

    A slump in economic activities is also likely to have dealt a serious blow to the number of new marriages in Japan, according to another study, which said that the drop in people tying the knot could mean 243,000 fewer babies born in the future.

    To prevent the negative fallout on social and economic activities, some experts are calling on the government to further relax antivirus measures such as shortening the period for treatment for infected patients.

    "It is important to weigh the risks of curbing coronavirus infections against stopping social and economic activities," said Fumio Otake, a specially appointed professor at Osaka University, calling on the government to shift its policy by taking into account data such as the number of suicides.

    "To maintain socioeconomic activities, it is necessary to relax measures, such as shortening the isolation period for infected patients, and shift their focus to people at high risk of developing severe symptoms," said Otake, who is also a member of the government's panel on COVID-19 measures.

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