The holidays can be tough for foreign nationals in Japan. For those hired in the summer, the thrill of being in a new country is starting to fade. Open social media feeds and you’ll be bombarded with photos of family and friends back home celebrating. If you’re not careful, you can fall into a rut.

Luckily, TELL Japan is a just a phone call away. The nonprofit has been serving the international community here for 45 years, specifically through its volunteer phone service and professional counseling.

“TELL started out with the Lifeline phone service in 1973, and was then known as the Tokyo English Lifeline,” Lifeline Director Vickie Skorji tells The Japan Times. “It grew out of a similar Japanese service called Inochi no Denwa, which had started up the year before. They were getting a lot of calls from foreigners needing help, so TELL developed from that.”

Skorji, who hails from Australia and has lived in Japan for more than 20 years, has a professional background in neuropsychology. Prior to joining TELL’s staff, she was one of the volunteers answering the Lifeline, which she says was modeled after an Australian telephone service of the same name that was founded in 1963.

Seeing a clear need to be more than just a telephone service, TELL expanded to include in-person meetings with English-speaking therapists in 1991.

“But then we noticed there was still a gap to be filled: We had the phone line for crisis triage, we had the clinical services for ongoing care, but we needed something more,” Skorji explains. “For example, what if you wanted to start a support group or offer a workshop? We addressed that in 2000 with the start of our outreach services.”

Although TELL used to be primarily focused on those in Tokyo, the NPO has expanded its face-to-face counseling services outside the capital.

“One great thing is that we can now reach out to other parts of Japan,” Skorji says. “We started addressing counseling needs in other areas and this is why we changed the name from Tokyo English Lifeline to TELL in 2013. We are not just Tokyo, we not just a clinic and not just a phone line.”

Keeping step with changes in the way the world communicates, last year TELL introduced its Chatline, which offers a live online chat service on weekends from 10:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. According to Skorji, it isn’t just the English-speaking community who is taking advantage of the services, either. That’s why the nonprofit has also expanded to include counseling in Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, French and Japanese.

“Fifty percent of those who reach out to us are Japanese nationals who can speak English,” Skorji says. “They include bicultural people and returnees. We don’t serve just the expat community — we serve the international community.”

Community service: Climbers take part in TELL Japan
Community service: Climbers take part in TELL Japan’s Tokyo Tower Climb last year to mark World Suicide Prevention Day. This year’s climb raised near $20,000 for charity. | COURTESY OF TELL JAPAN

A passion for helping

Billy Cleary is the newest member of the TELL team. He previously spent seven years in Japan as a youth minister, and recently returned after furthering his education back home in the United States.

“My passion has always been to help people and I think that is what lead me to pursue counseling,” he says. “Part of it was connected to my previous time in Japan — struggling to connect and the isolation you can sometimes feel.

“I want us to provide the best possible services to the international community all over Japan. TELL’s Kansai clinic is slated to officially open early next year but we already have a physical presence there, and therapists in Iwakuni (Hiroshima) and Nagoya, plus a fully fledged clinic down in Okinawa.”

All of TELL’s counselors have internationally recognized qualifications and, collectively, they have expertise in a diverse range of areas.

“These include trauma, behavioral issues, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, family and couple counseling, eating disorders, grieving and support for LGBTQ youth,” says Cleary, listing off what he says are just a few issues TELL deals with. “Our staff are empathic and willing to listen to people’s stories.”

Cleary adds that the tendency in Japan is often for doctors to medicate without offering counseling or a safe space to work through issues.

“Research has shown that talking things through is key when addressing issues and working on healing,” he says. “At TELL, we combine therapy with medication if it is required, and network with trusted doctors and psychiatrists.

“Our focus for 2019 will be on women and children — those who are isolated and vulnerable. We will be building awareness of issues while continuing to provide care within the existing framework.”

Get involved: Students from Yokohama International School who marched with TELL Japan in the Pride Parade this year pose for a picture with some people they met at a Pride event.
Get involved: Students from Yokohama International School who marched with TELL Japan in the Pride Parade this year pose for a picture with some people they met at a Pride event. | COURTESY OF TELL JAPAN

Reaching out

Selena Hoy is the coordinator for TELL’s Outreach Program. A bicultural Japanese-American, she says she understands the challenge of balancing different cultures.

The Outreach Program is the organization’s latest effort to engage the community it serves. Hoy says her mission is to “find the people where they are” and facilitate opportunities for support and sharing.

One Outreach initiative is the Exceptional Parenting Program, which offers up to nine workshops a year on various themes of interest to parents and educators. The program sees TELL’s therapists and other Japan-based experts share their knowledge along with ample opportunities for audience interaction. (The next workshop,” Schooling in a Second Language,” will take place Jan. 22 from 7 p.m. and feature speech and language pathologist Marsha Rosenberg.)

Hoy also manages a variety of regular community events that include pub quiz evenings at Hobgoblin in Shibuya, Knit Together cafe gatherings for crafting and chat, and Recharge With Nature hikes, co-organized by travel magazine Outdoor Japan.

“What I want is a ‘low bar’ approach, where it is very easy for people to participate,” Hoy says. “Of course, people can come along simply to hang out and enjoy the event, but if they want to reach out and talk they can be sure that someone will listen, without judgment.”

Reaching out to young people is also a major part of Hoy’s role, and supporting LGBTQ youth is one area in which TELL is making a difference. Hoy describes a panel she organized earlier in the year in which two of the participating international schools had established gay-straight alliances and one hadn’t. Such alliances aim to create safe and welcoming environments for all students.

“The kids got together and networked to establish a group at the third school,” Hoy says, proudly. “In this way, TELL helped them make the connections and to have the conservation in public, removing stigma, and then we were able to step back and let them take it from there.”

Whether its a charity pub night or just a simple conversation, the main takeaway is that no matter what you’re feeling, you don’t have to go through it alone — at the holidays, or any other time of year.

For more information, visit www.telljp.com. The Lifeline operates from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day at 03-5774-0992.

This holiday season try a Twitter detox

Homesickness can hit hard around the holidays when everyone close to you is celebrating far away. TELL Lifeline Director Vickie Skorji offers a few tips to avoid feeling lost or lonely during the new year period.

■ Reach out: The holiday season is a good chance to connect with other non-Japanese who are staying in the country, whether they are students, colleagues or other people from back home.

■ Take it slow: There is nothing wrong with making the most of some down time. Life in many big cities can be fast-paced and stressful. Having time to read a book, binge a TV series, go for walks and catch up on sleep is good for you both mentally and physically.

■ Help out: There are many charities around Japan that need support. If you prefer to keep busy during your time off, you can work or volunteer at one.

■ Discover Japan: The holiday season can also be a great time to explore parts of the country you’ve never been. Pick a destination that you’ve always wanted to see and make going there your priority, you’ll be creating special memories of your time in Japan by expanding your experiences. Just make sure to plan things like finances in advance.

■ Ring in 2019: Visit your local shrine on New Year’s Eve and ring the bell, or you can visit one on Jan. 1 or 2 to make new year wishes and learn about Japanese traditions for this time of year up close.

■ Find religion: Look for a church, synagogue or mosque, and join one of their services over the holiday period.

■ Do a social media detox: During this time of year you might feel some increased pressure for your life to appear “perfect,” and social media is bound to be full of pictures of other people showing how perfect their lives are. Try to switch off from social media for a few days to help take the pressure off yourself.

If you’re finding it a challenge to keep your emotions in a healthy state, eating well and keeping healthy sleeping routines is important. Also remember that you can always reach out to support services such as TELL Lifeline, whether it is via the Lifeline phone service or the online chat.

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