Unanswered calls from children

Seventy-five percent of calls made to telephone counseling services for children go unanswered, according to Tokyo-based nonprofit Childline Support Center Japan, one of 76 nonprofit organizations and groups in Japan that take calls from children having problems. Those unanswered calls might have been about serious, even life-threatening issues, but of course, we will never know. A better system to help every child who calls is urgently needed.

The number of calls to the services has increased every year, but in fiscal 2012, the calls exceeded 800,000. Of the 821,591 calls made to services, only 214,643, or 26.1 percent, were answered. These startling high numbers show that many children are willing to take the small step of calling to get help. They deserve to be answered.

Children under 18 experience many problems such as bullying, depression, and social and mental conflicts of all kinds. The hotline is one way to ensure that the common problems young people encounter do not become worse and that serious problems are addressed. For many kids, contacting a child-line service is an act of courage.

Talking about their innermost feelings or serious problems can be a frightening and difficult act. For many children, talking anonymously on their phone is easier than talking to a parent, teacher or friend. For those kids, child-line services may seem to be the only setting where they can talk honestly and feel they are being listened to seriously.

To get those calls answered, much more needs to be done. The nonprofit services have started to work towards better organization and coordination. An upcoming forum in October will discuss the issues in more detail. The most urgent need is more counselors. Only 2,000 people in Japan are registered as volunteer counselors for the services. That number is far from sufficient. In Kumamoto and Okinawa prefectures, some organizations had to stop because of a shortage of counselors.

In other countries, graduate students and trainees in psychology, social work and counseling majors often volunteer. Training in phone counseling requires time and effort to learn how to best talk with children who have problems and to give advice they can understand and accept.

Money is another problem. Currently, the hotlines require roughly ¥20 million a year. Expenses are covered mainly by donations. National and local governments as well as the education ministry should reallocate their budgets to help these services. The 800,000-plus phone calls per year are pleas for help from Japan’s young people who desperately need to be answered.