May 20, 2021
By Yoshiyuki Tachibana
Around the world, in the wake of COVID-19, many people have developed new mental health conditions and many more have had their existing mental health conditions exacerbated. In Japan, suicide rates have increased for the first time in more than a decade, rates are particularly high for young people and women. On Mental Health Action Day, Thursday May 20th, 2021 Director Yoshiyuki Tachibana of National Center for Child Health and Development, Japan discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of the Japanese community and key steps being undertaken to provide support and early intervention.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of suicides in Japan has been increasing. The number of suicides in 2020, announced in March 2021 by the National Police Agency and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in Japan, increased for the first time in 11 years, since the global financial crisis of 2009. Notably, the number of suicides among women and young people is on the rise.
What is happening with suicide rates in Japan?
According to the same announcement, the number of suicides in 2020 increased by 912 people (4.5%) from the previous year to 21,081. While the number of suicides among men decreased for the 11th consecutive year to 14,055. By age group, those in their 40s accounted for the highest number of suicides at 3,568 (up 142 from the previous year), with a high proportion of middle-aged and older people falling in this group, while the number of suicides among those in their 50s and 60s decreased; numbers were up in all other age groups, with those in their 20s showing the greatest increase (up 404 [19.1%] to 2,521).
Suicide rates among women are increasing. There were 7,026 suicides among women in 2020, constituting an increase of 935 or 15% over the previous year. Particularly conspicuous was the increase in the younger generation, with 311 suicides seen in people under 20 years old, up 44%, and 837 in people in their 20s, up 32%. By occupation, the number of suicides among employed people increased by 34% to 1,534, that among housewives increased by 14% to 1,168, and that among students and pupils increased by 44% to 387, indicating that more and more women are troubled by various aspects of work, life, and relationships.
The increases in suicides among children is notable, with 14 (+6) in elementary school students, 146 (+34) in junior high school students, and 339 (+60) in high school students, for a total of 499. This is a 35% increase over the previous year and the highest number since statistics began to be collected in 1978.
Why are suicide rates increasing in Japan?
One of the reasons speculated to underlie the increase in suicide rates among women and young people is increased anxiety in society as a whole due to the spread of COVID-19. In addition, many young women, who have shown an increase in the number of suicides, tend to not be full-time employees, but instead they tend to be part-time or short-term contract workers. COVID-19 has particularly strongly impacted the lives of groups with a relatively weak economic base, so economic hardship may have led to this uptick in suicides during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the increase in suicides among children and young people may be due in part to their isolation, as they are restricted from participating in school clubs and other extracurricular activities.
The rapid increase in suicides in the second half of 2020 is also thought to be greatly influenced by the mass media coverage of celebrity suicides during the same period. This shows once again the great influence that mass media has on suicide in society.
As I write this article, a state of emergency is currently instated in Japan. Vaccination of residents has also begun, but the coronavirus scourge is expected to continue for some time, with no end yet in sight. The impact of this disaster on the national and international economy will continue. We must therefore work on developing a social system that can recognize and respond to the needs of people who are mentally overwhelmed. The national government in Japan has recently appointed a minister for loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the task of the minister has not been well defined, individuals at risk of suicide should be one of the core targets.
Society as a whole should be aware that individuals in distress require care and support. Advocating for such awareness is an important role for mental health professionals. Early intervention by mental health specialists for people struggling with mental health problems caused by this pandemic and in general is considered important.
What has been the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of your community? What action is being taken or could be taken to provide support and early intervention to your local community?
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