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TELL vet helps cast net wider to reach kids, stop suicides

by Gianni Simone

Talking about your problems and fears is always a scary thing to do. Opening up and reaching out, especially to a stranger, requires a lot of courage, and things get even more complicated when you happen to live abroad, far from your old network of family and friends.

For 40 years, the Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) has tried to address this problem by providing support and counseling services for Japan’s international community. Vickie Skorji, the new director of the Lifeline hot-line service, has played a pivotal role in its activities.

Born in Australia, Skorji, 53, was fascinated by neuropsychology in her youth, and in particular the anatomy of the brain.

“That’s my first passion,” she laughs. “You could say I’m a scientist at heart. I spent a lot of my college years studying the physical and chemical structure of the brain, so now when I do counseling I can help people understand this is a physical problem. It’s important they don’t feel they are failing in some way.”

Skorji went on to earn a degree in behavioral sciences from La Trobe University in 1995 and a Master’s in counseling at Monash University, also in Melbourne.

“I wanted to combine those studies with my desire to help people,” she says. “That led me to join a variety of nonprofits, and I’ve been involved with the Lifeline in particular for over 20 years. I even worked for the Australian Brain Foundation, helping family members who were dealing with a loved one who had a stroke or Alzheimer’s or some other acquired brain injury.”

After getting married, Skorji moved to Hong Kong in 1999, where she helped children with special needs, and three years later she came to Japan.

“At first I was very involved with my children, who at the time were 15 and 8 years old. They went to the American School in Japan and I was involved with the PTA, class activities, etc.,” she says. “I also tried all those activities expat wives do, like ikebana. But then my oldest daughter went back to Australia and I was left with more free time. It was at that time that a friend put me in touch with TELL — which I didn’t know existed — and I joined a committee of women who were working on the ‘TELL Me about Tokyo’ book. That was in 2004, and I’ve been with TELL ever since.”

Skorji is particularly proud of that book. “It was a great thing because we felt there was a dearth of resources for foreigners. Since then the number of information-related calls has dropped significantly — and more, thanks to our new online directory, Wiki-TELL — and now 80 percent of the calls are counseling-related.”

After undergoing training and working on the phone line for about five years, Skorji has recently begun focusing on other activities, including outreach.

“Being a mother makes me particularly sensitive to children’s issues,” she says, “so I got involved in the School Awareness Program. Many school-age children didn’t know these services were available to them, and I wanted to help address that. We interviewed 2,000 students attending international schools and came up with a list of their needs.”

One of Skorji’s passions is the Suicide Prevention Program that TELL developed in 2008 with financial support from investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.

“In the beginning we brought the program from outside Japan, but we realized that while the international approach was good, we needed to develop different tools. This work has resulted in the creation of a teachers’ program, an adults’ program and a parents’ program.”

Talking about suicide and mental illness in general is still considered a big taboo in Japan, where getting access to services is can be more complicated than in many countries in Europe and North America, for example. For non-Japanese-speakers, options are even further restricted. That’s why TELL has developed professional counseling services for foreigners.

“According to current estimates, only a quarter of those who have a mental health problem reach out for support,” she says. “Japan is badly equipped to deal with these issues, but this is a global problem. Australia, for example, had a large campaign addressing stigma and we have a better recognition that certain things are a major health problem. Yet the two countries share an overwhelming prejudice on the subject. When it comes to dealing in a meaningful way with these persons, people show little tolerance. They just tell you, ‘Snap out of it,’ and you can’t because it’s just chemical changes in your body and you can do nothing about it.”

The period after the 3/11 earthquake in 2011 was a challenging time for TELL.

“While we managed to keep the Lifeline operating, many of our volunteers left Japan. However they kept helping us from abroad, and it was thanks to them that we were able to quickly produce a brochure in 17 languages. That was fabulous,” she says. “Then the International Medical Corps came along and told us about a program called Psychological First Aid. What we found out was that the help we give can sometimes have a negative effect. In other words, it’s important to understand what these people really need, not what we think they may need, because helping is not only about sending diapers or crayons. Therefore, we trained people so they could have a positive interaction with those affected by the disaster, and our trainees in turn went to Tohoku and trained people who lived there.”

In 2012, TELL launched a support service to aid people suffering psychologically as a result of working in Tohoku.

“It isn’t always easy to keep your job and private life apart,” she says. “Listening to people’s problem takes a toll on volunteers. That’s why self-care is very important. As for me, I absolutely adore exploring Japanese castle ruins, something we don’t have in Australia. They are scattered all over Japan, untouched, and I like to tour the countryside, breathe some fresh air and meet some wonderful people along the way.”

Skorji has a great fondness for Japan, but she admits it can be a challenging place at times for foreigners, and in particular women, who may feel their legal rights and opportunities in the workforce are limited here.

“This can be a big cultural shock for many Western women,” she says, “and it’s something I have experienced. I have spoken to many women — both expats and Japanese returnees who had obtained postgraduate qualifications overseas — who were depressed because they couldn’t find appropriate job opportunities.”

Skorji also thinks that the expat life can be emotionally draining.

“I found it very challenging when I sent my eldest daughter back to Australia, and many of the original women I had made close friendships with moved on. Foreign women who stay in Japan longer than the typical two- to three-year stint have to constantly make new friends. Also, when your children grow up and you are no longer connected to the schools, this significantly reduces your access to finding women and developing new friendships.

“If you cannot find meaningful work opportunities it is easy to get lost or depressed. This situation is always hardest on the partner who is not working, as they do not have the safety net of the routines and human contact that the working environment provides. All these challenges can place a strain on the best of relationships, and many do not survive the move. Again, TELL has been an important source of stability for me both professionally and personally over the last nine years.”

For these and other reasons, Skorji strongly recommends becoming a volunteer with TELL.

“Our Lifeline has gained a reputation for quality training in client-centered counseling that can be as useful in everyday life as it is in counseling. You realize how many people are actually out there struggling, and if you can take a moment to listen to their problems and not let them be alone, it’s a powerful and humbling experience.

“Most importantly, the training program is a tremendous opportunity for self-exploration and growth, and the skills we teach are good for you regardless of counseling, even if you are a manager, or a parent, or in a relationship. In all aspects of your life you will be a better communicator.”

TELL has been adversely affected by the recession and it is constantly struggling to raise enough money to run its services and develop new ones. “We have three major fundraising events. Our major one is the Connoisseurs’ Auction, which last year brought in about ¥18 million.”

The organization was hit hard by the earthquake too, as many volunteers left Japan. “Our lines were jammed at the time, with people calling from everywhere, even outside Japan,” she recalls. “We now have 72 [volunteers] but we need more. That’s why last year we started an online training program for people who don’t live in Tokyo or have demanding work schedules. To all those who are interested in working with us, I guarantee this will be a life-changing experience.”

This year’s Connoisseurs’ Auction will be hosted by the Embassy of the Republic of Angola in Daizawa, Tokyo, on Friday, Nov. 22, from 5:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.telljp.com. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.