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In order to increase mental health awareness, TELL Japan hopes you will step up to its latest physical challenge.

The Step Up Challenge encourages people to walk 21,081 steps in a single day — the same number of lives lost to suicide in Japan last year — during a monthlong campaign that lasts from Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, until Oct. 10, World Mental Health Day.

The Tokyo-based nonprofit has provided counseling and support to Japan’s international community for close to five decades, and its annual Tokyo Tower Climb last raised ¥5 million for TELL and its services in 2019. When the pandemic hit, however, the group changed tack. The result was Step Up, which raised ¥1.2 million last year.

“In previous years, we would have to cap the event to 500 people congregating near the Tower,” says Selena Hoy, TELL’s outreach coordinator. “This year, since we will not be having the event there, there is no cap on the number of people who can participate.”

That 21,081 took their own lives last year is particularly alarming given that the number of suicides had been decreasing in the years before the pandemic.

“For the first time in 10 years, that number went up again, with the pandemic being a factor,” Hoy says. “We want to continue this conversation about mental health, and urge people to be proactive about it rather than reactive. We want companies and communities to take this issue seriously.”

While mental health counseling over the phone is not uncommon in Japan, TELL is the only lifeline here to provide services in English. Its in-person counseling services are available in other languages such as Japanese, Spanish and Chinese.

“The international community faces added mental health challenges, with culture shock and the inability to access services if they do not speak Japanese,” Hoy says. “During the pandemic, they have been separated from their families abroad and miss their support system. As part of the outreach that I am involved in, at companies and schools, I see that everyone is suffering from burnout. So many lost a loved one to COVID-19, and that adds to long-distance grief.”

Hoy is quick to point out that women in particular have been suffering more during the pandemic due to the stress of isolation and financial worries, as well as having the burden of caring for children and elder relatives falling squarely on their shoulders.

“We have expanded the lifeline from phone to chat, but many are not accustomed to services on chat,” Hoy says. “We also track how many calls we are not able to receive, and the number for those has surely gone up.”

So what does walking 21,081 in a single day look like? Hoy says it should take most people an average of 3½ hours and the steps can be divided among several people if you are taking part in a group.

“People can participate with their family members, and we ask them to take a photo of themselves or any image from a fitness app or pedometer, to record and show their participation,” Hoy says.

The Step Up Challenge is meant to be inclusive and TELL stresses that those with mobility issues are encouraged to interpret the 21,081-step goal in whatever way is meaningful to them, whether that’s wheeling 21,081 feet or writing a story with 21,081 characters.

Emily Brown, a web and graphic design coordinator at TELL, says there have so far been around 40 individual registrations, as well as several corporate signups and separate fundraising campaigns.

Registration for the Step Up Challenge costs ¥6,000 for teams and ¥1,500 for individuals; it is free for children under the age of 12. For more information or to sign up to take part, visit www.tellevents.org.

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