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In an alarming set of numbers, data from the National Police Agency shows that 6,976 women in Japan took their own lives last year. That’s nearly 15% more than in 2019, marking the end of what had been a 10-year decline in the number of women who died by suicide.

Coming to light: Mental health service TELL is bringing speakers together to discuss ways to help women and young people in the pandemic.
Coming to light: Mental health service TELL is bringing speakers together to discuss ways to help women and young people in the pandemic.

This news comes as a particular concern to Vickie Skorji, director of the multilingual crisis hotline and mental health service TELL.

“Normally, dramatic suicide increases in Japan are made up of the elderly, or men in their 40s and 50s,” she says. “This time, it’s not that men and the elderly are not taking their lives, it’s that we are seeing an unprecedented increase in the cases of suicide in women and youths.”

For Skorji, this is evidence that the stress of COVID-19 is having a disproportionate impact on women and young people.

“In Japan, women are a particularly vulnerable group,” she says. “They have higher rates of unemployment, financial instability, and they are more likely to be caring for the elderly or working as nursing staff on the front lines of the pandemic. So on many levels this disaster has impacted women more significantly. Because of pre-existing inequalities such as the pay gap, lack of financial safety net and even the inability to talk about mental health issues, the added pressures of COVID have been very challenging for females in Japan to deal with.”

March is Suicide Awareness Month in Japan, and March 8 marked International Women’s Day, making it an ideal time for TELL to use its platform to advocate for both women’s equality and suicide awareness.

On April 10 and 11, TELL will hold a two-day Zoom conference, “Covid-19 Mental Health Disparities: Pursuing Equality in Japan,” to shed light on the mental health issues faced by women and youth in this country. The first day will feature talks by roughly 20 different speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds. The second will feature a bilingual “emotionally focused therapy” workshop specifically designed for health clinicians to learn more about treating couples.

“When we’re looking at women’s mental health, making sure you have the support of your partner can mean a huge difference,” Skorji says. “We want to help clinicians in Japan have the training and know-how to help women be emotionally resilient in a country where they are socially and economically disadvantaged.”

For a ¥1,500 ticket, attendees can stream the first day’s lectures live or access the recordings later at their own convenience.

TELL is looking to make sure that awareness of the issues faced by women and youth in Japan extends far past March, as Japan’s low ranking in the Global Gender Gap Report — 121 out of 153 countries — and recent sexist comments made by former Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori, show how much room there is for improvement in gender equality.

“The ‘Shadow Pandemic,’ as the United Nations calls it, is the increased violence against women and children during COVID,” says Andrijana Cvetkovikj, the conference’s keynote speaker. “It has companions such as loneliness, isolation and mental health issues, whose victims suffer silently and are not included in the daily count of COVID’s victims.”

Cvetkovikj, CEO of the consulting firm BrioNexus and the former Macedonian ambassador to Japan, is a longtime advocate for gender equality in Japan. She views the current moment as a crucial time for action.

“During COVID, more women have lost their jobs, been physically or mentally abused, isolated by their families or discriminated against,” she says. “Society must act now to support the most vulnerable, and we all should stay alert to provide support to the people suffering around us.”

For more information, visit tellevents.org. If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html for a detailed list of resources and assistance.

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