Suicide still worry despite rate drop

More support needed to keep downward trend alive

Kyodo

Even as the number of suicides in Japan last year slipped below 30,000 for the first time in 15 years, the situation remains serious, with nearly 80 people still committing suicide per day in the country.

The modest improvement in the National Police Agency’s suicide data has been attributed to a variety of nationwide measures introduced since the 2006 enactment of the basic law on suicide prevention.

Many experts involved say efforts begin with counseling and unequivocally call for bringing support to those needing it.

“I was stunned,” Arakawa Ward Mayor Taiichiro Nishikawa of Tokyo recalled the moment when he learned four years ago that suicides were the fifth leading cause of death among his district’s residents.

Since then, Nishikawa has poured efforts into measures aimed at preventing suicides, such as organizing lectures for his staff given by relatives of suicide victims and instructing managerial employees to conduct suicide prevention measures in all municipal agencies.

He also set up a council for ward employees who work in sections likely to encounter those seeking advice on issues that could lead to suicide, such as family discord and poverty.

Under Nishikawa’s direction, manuals on support measures were made and about 1,200 employees received suicide prevention training.

Among such steps was collaboration with Nippon Medical School. In order to prevent those who have attempted suicide from harming themselves again, the program connects them with a variety of support measures, such as assistance in welfare and employment issues, upon their discharge from hospitals.

Suicide eventually retreated to sixth place in 2010 and to seventh in 2011 among the causes of deaths in the ward.

“By all means, offer counseling,” the mayor said.

He insisted that staff at his office should feel rewarded by the number of people they have saved instead of feeling embarrassed by the high number of suicides in the ward.

The government’s measures have been helpful as well. It set up a fund to support prefectural-level efforts to prevent suicides and also published detailed data on suicides per village, town and other municipal unit to promote measures suited to local needs.

Meanwhile, a 49-year-old man from Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward described hardships he experienced after his failed suicide attempt five years ago in the dense Aokigahara forest near Mount Fuji, known as a magnet for those planning suicide.

The man had been working for a steel mill in Chiba Prefecture, but was fired due to heart disease.

The loss of employment also meant the loss of housing, as he lived in a company dorm. After his unemployment benefits ran out, hardships prompted him to borrow money from consumer loan companies.

“If I don’t have a role to play in society, it would be better for me to become fertilizer for trees,” the man recalled thinking at the time he decided to commit suicide.

He cut his wrist in the forest, but the incision was shallow. He was taken into police custody after wandering there for days. After being hospitalized for frostbite for 3½ months, he was sent to institutions.

Currently, the man does cleaning work and supports himself on a meager income and welfare benefits.

“It’s a struggle to survive,” he said. “The fact that I didn’t die may have been a sign that I should suffer more as punishment,” he said.

“I shouldn’t abandon my own life, but, having no hopes or dreams, it (suicide) is still an option,” he said.

The man sometimes talks about his experience at symposiums. With the support of a lawyer he met at one such venue, he was able to declare personal bankruptcy and clear his debt.

He now lives in an apartment thanks to the hospital’s help in introducing him to a municipal ward office.

“Procedures are difficult, and I am grateful to the hospital and lawyer. If you have people who support you, you will have peace of mind,” he said.

On Thursday, the government said in a preliminary report that the number of suicides in Japan last year slipped below 30,000 for the first time in 15 years, falling 9.4 percent from the previous year to 27,766.

The annual figure remained between 20,000 and 26,000 from 1978 to 1997 before hovering above 30,000 since 1998.

While the number of suicides declined across the country, Akita Prefecture had the highest number of suicides per 100,000 people for the 17th consecutive year, according to data by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

In 2006, organizations working on suicide prevention in the prefecture formed a network, offering consultations by clinical psychologists and lawyers, as well as mental health seminars.

The number of people committing suicide in the prefecture dropped to 346 in 2011 from 519 in 2003.

However, prefectural officials say they are not certain what types of efforts made an impact and are still exploring ways to help the vulnerable.

“There is no silver bullet, as people commit suicide due to a myriad of intertwining factors, including the economy, jobs, educational backgrounds and personal relationships,” said Yasuyuki Shimizu, who represents the nonprofit group Life Link supporting suicide prevention efforts.

“There is a need for society as a whole to share a sense of crisis (and realize) that it can happen to anyone,” he said.