National / Social Issues

Despite Japan’s declining suicide rate, prevention measures still critical for people at high risk: expert

by Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writer

The government should plan prevention measures to help people deemed at high risk for suicide, including young people, pregnant women, mothers with newborns and overworked employees, an expert on preventive efforts said Tuesday.

“Considering that children attending elementary or junior high school are committing suicide, we as a society should be determined to prevent this,” Yutaka Motohashi, director of the government-affiliated Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures, said during a news conference at the Foreign Press Center Japan in Tokyo.

In July, the government approved a new suicide prevention guideline aimed at cutting the suicide rate by 30 percent over the next decade — the first amendment in five years. As of 2015, Japan’s rate of 18.5 suicides per 100,000 people remains higher than in other major economies.

However, since the number of suicides has been on the decline for the last seven years, Motohashi, who headed the government panel that compiled the guideline, expressed concern that public awareness of the still-critical problem has been slipping.

In 2016, 21,897 people took their own lives — down significantly from 2003, when the figure peaked at 34,427. The more recent figure includes 1,978 cases related to work and 319 cases related to school. The suicide rate among the younger generation remains roughly unchanged.

To prevent youth suicides, the guideline stressed the need to educate students about the importance of seeking help.

“Education on suicide prevention has been taught in schools, but it was about teaching how precious people’s lives are. Instead, the most important thing to teach children is simply how to ask for help when they’re depressed,” Motohashi said.

Educators must be trained to recognize signs indicating a student may be suicidal, the guideline says.

Another key point is teachers should have a better understanding of sexual minorities. The suicide rate is high among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, who face discrimination and bullying.

Pregnant women and mothers suffering postpartum depression are also at higher risk. This group accounted for 63 suicides between 2005 and 2014 in Tokyo’s 23 wards, according to a study led by Satoru Takeda, a professor at Juntendo University.

In 2016, the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a report that concluded that at least 4 percent of pregnant women and mothers with newborns, about 40,000 women nationwide, are in need of mental health counseling annually.

To address the issue, the health ministry will strengthen support programs for those in need of extra help — especially for those who haven’t undergone prenatal checkups before childbirth.

The ministry runs a program that dispatches counselors on request to households with infants up to 4 months old, and will plan follow-up visits to see if the mothers are in need of mental health support.

To reduce the number of work-related suicides, it is important to reduce long working hours and put an end to workplace harassment, the guideline says.

The Labor Standards Inspection Office said it will further instruct businesses that allow employees to put in excessive hours to improve their working environment, and make sure employees undergo stress checks at smaller firms.

“The main purpose of the new guideline is to highlight issues that haven’t been dealt with thoroughly in the past,” Motohashi said.

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