Yukio Saito, 75, is the Chair of the Japanese Association for Suicide Prevention and CEO of the Japanese Federation of Inochi-no-denwa (Lifeline), Japan’s first and largest telephone counseling service. For the past five decades, Saito has been educating the public and lobbying relentlessly to bring an end to Japan’s shockingly high suicide rate, which is one of the highest among developed countries. From 1977, the number of suicides in Japan increased steadily until 1998, when suicides claimed one life about every 20 minutes. It took Saito four decades and the publication of more than 40 books on suicide to convince the Japanese government to start paying attention to these numbers. Finally in 2001, Japan’s first national suicide-prevention policy was enacted. Still, 2003 turned into an especially tragic year as 34,427 people- about 70 percent of them men — took their own lives, bringing the nation’s suicide death toll to a new peak, with one about every 15 minutes. As time is running out for more and more people, Saito does everything in his power to keep reaching out.

Every day is precious. It might be our last one. Or it could end up as the final day for a loved one. Make it great!

Talking is the most effective coping mechanism. Opening one’s mouth is a way to open one’s own heart, and the listener’s heart, too. Everyone has the power to cope if they express their feelings.

When people are grieving, the feelings that lead to suicide are strong. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake, suicide rates in the Tohoku region have gone up sharply. In Fukushima Prefecture, 217 people killed themselves in May. In 2010, there were 49 suicides there during the same month.

In March, we set up additional counseling lines for northern Japan and in 10 days we received 1,515 calls. Sadly, we couldn’t operate longer than those 10 days because we couldn’t raise enough funds to cover the incoming calls. So far, the government hasn’t done much for people regarding suicide prevention and crisis intervention, so I’m very worried that more tragic news of suicides will come to light within the next few months.

Fundraising is a tough job anywhere, but in Japan it’s a real killer. My typical day includes visiting companies and government bodies for donations for suicide prevention. Most refuse. If I get ¥10,000 or ¥100,000 from a place, I feel lucky.

Once depressed people receive good face-to-face counseling, suicide rates drop. In Japan, the biggest hurdle for suicide prevention is the country’s medical policy. Our statistics show that 80 percent of callers to lifelines are taking medication. More than 70 percent are diagnosed as depressed and have a history of attempted suicides. Eventually many kill themselves. This tragedy is happening partly because Japanese clinics don’t employ clinical counselors. Some doctors just prescribe medication and then discharge the patients. Yet the numbers are clear: in Britain, where patients see clinical counselors specializing in cognitive therapy, suicide rates have dropped drastically. This is the system Japan needs.

Some questions have no answers. For decades I lobbied the Ministry of Health and Welfare to create a suicide-prevention policy. “It’s not our job, not our responsibility,” I was told over and over again. Then whose job is it?

We are what we think: Thoughts are powerful enough to influence our moods and create our destiny. Negative thoughts create negative moods and this can spiral, eventually sucking people into an abyss where only suicide seems to make any sense. Once a person switches from such a biased, negative way of thinking to a more realistic and therefore positive outlook, his or her life turns around.

Without sufficient funds, suicide prevention is impossible in Japan. Anonymous phone lines are a great help, but nothing can match a face-to-face meeting with a good listener. From 1973 to 2003, we ran a clinic in Tokyo. Patients were charged an extremely low hourly rate as our counselors worked on a virtually voluntary base. Our statistics showed that thoughts of suicide among our patients dropped as they worked through their problems with our counselors. Tragically, in 2000, the city of Tokyo withdrew its ¥5 million yearly subsidy. Our clinic’s life was over.

Having a job is a basic human necessity for survival and happiness. In Japan, unemployment statistics don’t differentiate between those who have never worked and those who are temporarily out of work. Suicide statistics also lump everyone who is unemployed into one group. But there is a difference: Those who lost their jobs due to company restructuring, for example, usually search for new work and find something to make ends meet. They are not likely to kill themselves. Those at more risk of suicide are within the group of people who have never had a job. Japan has a very large number of such adults who still live with their parents.

It’s not your fault if someone you know takes his or her life. Family and friends of people who have committed suicide feel so much pain and guilt for not having been able to save their loved one. These people must forgive themselves and also forgive the dead. We must remember that it was ultimately their decision to leave, and they did. We are left behind, but we still must move forward with our lives.

Don’t give up on people, no matter how suicidal they seem to be. Especially then! They may giving up on themselves but we shouldn’t.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com. Twitter: judittokyo

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