Mental health care is gaining importance for both individuals and companies amid the economic slump and rise in work-related suicides, according to the head of a Tokyo-based counseling institute.

Peacemind Inc. runs Kokoro No Massa-ji (Massage Room for the Mind) counseling studios in Tokyo’s Shibuya and Marunouchi districts.

Started up in 1998 by providing advice via the Internet, the company now has 30 qualified psychologists and industry counselors giving advice on issues that include work, health, human relationships and family.

Recently, more large firms have joined Peacemind’s corporate membership list so their employees can receive counseling, Peacemind President Kunihiro Ogiwara said.

“Although Japanese companies provide a statutory health check for their staff every year, no company considered providing mental care until recently,” Ogiwara said. “This is a field in which Japan is lagging farthest behind (the West).”

Ogiwara conducted extensive research on employee assistance programs in the United States before launching his business.

“Companies are finally feeling a sense of crisis, with suicide figures exceeding 30,000 for five consecutive years since 1998,” he said.

According to National Police Agency statistics, out of the 31,042 suicides in 2001, 1,756 were thought to be company-related, including employees who had been reprimanded by superiors or made work-related errors.

Another 6,845 cases were attributed to individual financial predicaments, including bankruptcy and unemployment, the report says.

Although the report links 15,131 suicides to health-related problems, labor experts suspect many of these cases can be linked to overwork.

Currently, 40 companies have contracts with Peacemind for their staff to receive counseling on an individual basis in person, via the Internet or by telephone. The industries vary, but many are large firms with 2,000 employees or more.

Tailor-made seminars can also be arranged for companies on how to detect warning signs, or how to prevent and overcome a negative atmosphere in the workplace.

Of some 300 people who receive counseling per month, half are corporate clients, Ogiwara said, adding that 30 companies joined Peacemind’s introduction seminar at the end of April, indicating a growing interest in employee mental health.

Wataru Ando, Peacemind’s chief counselor, said men in their late 20s and 30s are the largest corporate client segment seeking advice.

“This category often has the most stress in many firms, being between management and staff and having to work the longest hours,” he said.

But while many firms turn to Peacemind for positive reasons — including raising employee morale and productivity — some also see it as a form of risk management.

The Supreme Court acknowledgment in March 2000 that a 1991 Dentsu Inc. employee’s suicide was a case of “karo-jisatsu,” or suicide resulting from overwork, had a major impact on companies.

It was the first such judgment that clearly held a company liable for failing to protect an employee’s mental and physical health from work stress and fatigue.

Membership in programs such as those provided by Peacemind Inc. can be used as proof that companies are trying to care for their staff, Ogiwara said.

But while most of his clients are large companies that can still afford such services, Ogiwara realizes even more small and midsize firms are facing bankruptcy and layoffs.

“We are also making efforts to provide smaller-scale services and seminars at a lower cost, so we can also help small companies and their employees,” he said.