Osaka – Geoff Morris holds his month-old baby girl in one arm, while keeping a watchful eye on a herd of toddlers romping around on a rubber mat. In the corner of this same room, several young mothers huddle together on the floor. It looks like an ordinary classroom, outfitted with a few desks, computers and teaching toys.
What happens next, though, is practically taboo in Japanese society: A discussion about mental health.
“How are you doing?” Morris asks the women, opening the floor to conversation.
It’s here that the mothers are given a reprieve from the constant demands for attention from their little ones and focus on themselves for a moment. They open up about their stresses, anxieties and emotions.
Morris, 41, moved to Japan 13 years ago while working for the British government, and fell in love with both the culture and Chikako, the woman who later became his wife. However, he found making emotional connections in Japanese culture to be difficult, even more so when you’re a parent under stress. So, he engineered his own mental health care network here in his adopted home of Osaka.
His central mission is to connect single mothers who are isolated by their socioeconomic situation. His classroom is the hub of Natural English, which offers language lessons to Japanese students. Downstairs is the Oyako Cafe, which he founded two years ago to connect families through social events. The cafe has been shuttered for months because of the pandemic, but the classroom remains open for anyone who wishes to meet up for support and fellowship.
“Japanese people don’t tend to be so open about their emotions, which may be one of the reasons Japan has such a high suicide rate,” says Morris, who lost a close friend to suicide six years ago.
Friendship, he believes, is one of the simplest ways to fight depression, but he finds that the stigma against talking about mental health between all but the closest of friends is the real issue.
Morris often opens a floodgate by asking that one simple question, “How are you doing?”
Lately, many of the women haven’t been doing well. The coronavirus crisis is taking a toll on their mental states: They know single mothers who’ve lost their jobs, they’ve heard harrowing stories of domestic abuse and neglect, and they feel isolated from their friends, the only people who can sympathize with their woes.
“These here are the people who will talk about their feelings, so how are the people who aren’t talking about their feelings doing?” says Morris.
One mother jokes that Morris will ask her 100 times a day if she’s OK.
“It’s our moral imperative to help others,” Morris says. “I only wish that I could do more.”
Kansai-based psychotherapist Lil Wills sees a heightened risk for families stuck at home together during the pandemic, warning that “it is easy to become exhausted, irritable and stressed — exactly when flashpoints occur.”
At the meetups, Morris connects the families with pediatric nurse Nazuki Takaku, who provides medical and social counseling for the parents if they require it.
“Parents need time to themselves, but can’t get that working from home,” she says. “The parents can’t do their work, and get even more stressed.”
And those are just the parents who are still fortunate to have work. The pandemic has left up to a million across Japan jobless, and Morris estimates that many families in Osaka live below the poverty line. The cafe works to feed hungry families, but it’s oversubscribed and its resources are drying up.
“What will happen is people will come here and say they’ve literally got no food,” Morris says. “I would go to the grocery store and buy them everything they need, but I can’t even do that now, we’d run out of money.”
While Japanese culture is known for its hospitality toward guests, there is a general ambivalence toward charity. Without being able to hold fundraising social events, Morris’ cash flow has come to a halt.
For now, Morris’ pursuit of connecting the isolated takes place largely online, where there’s no financial barrier to entry. He and Takaku are planning counseling sessions via web chats for parents who are social distancing. He also runs a Facebook group of more than 7,000 members living in Kansai. Members can’t plan their usual social meetups, but instead post that they’re just looking for someone to chat on the phone with — someone to ask them that one question, “How are you doing?”
Back in the classroom, Morris hands his baby off to his wife and makes sure everyone has a drink as he preps himself to hear his fellow parents’ answers to that very question.