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Severe school anxiety puts teens at risk

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For the past two weeks there have been projections about a spike in juvenile suicides as the new school term approached. Suicides among junior high and high school students rise around Sept. 1, and teachers and parents were urged to pay close attention to young people.

Naturally, the media paid close attention, and as of Sept. 3, two days after most schools reopened for classes, police said that in the Tokyo metropolitan area there had been three cases of what appeared to be suicide by persons under 18 and one attempted suicide by a person under 18. Various media outlets reported these deaths and even went into detail, despite warnings from the World Health Organization that such publicity can trigger other suicides.

The main source of the fear regarding juvenile suicides at this time of year is a 2015 Cabinet Office study that reported 18,048 Japanese people under the age of 19 killed themselves between 1972 and 2013. Of these, 317 died on either Aug. 31, Sept. 1 or Sept. 2, an average of 105 for each of the three days over the 40 years surveyed. For the rest of the calendar year, the average would be 49 for each day, or half as many.

A Sept. 2 Mainichi Shimbun article quoted Toshiaki Tanaka, a professor of child psychology at Kyushu Women’s Junior College, as saying that bullying and difficult social relationships aren’t the only reasons some students fear going back to school. There is also academic pressure and interactions with specific instructors. Tanaka urges “home room teachers, school nurses and counselors” to work together to look for signs of desperation among students.

Given that the three suicides reported by the police happened before school opened, telling school personnel to be extra vigilant is like closing the proverbial barn door after the horses have fled. And while a number of related articles that appeared before Sept. 1 urged parents to do the same thing, there was another suggestion that actually sounded more effective in heading off potential student suicides.

On Aug. 30, the official Twitter account of Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo posted a message saying, “If you have no place to run, come to the zoo.” The tweet was accompanied by a photo of a tapir, which, according to the zoo, instinctively dives into a body of water whenever it senses a predator nearby. The tweet continued by saying, “You don’t need permission to escape, you just run.” Ueno Zoo is a perfect place to hide out, because, it says, the animals contained therein are not subject to the rules of human society.

If the purpose of the tweet was to increase attendance on Sept. 1, it’s a provocative PR scheme. All the media that reported the tweets agree that they targeted students who are nervous about going back to school, and one could argue that the zoo was exploiting this anxiety for its own benefit by directly encouraging truancy. The Mainichi Shimbun called the zoo’s publicity office and asked if the message was meant to “prevent suicides,” and the spokesperson said they don’t comment on “individual tweets.”

However, another problem with Ueno’s rationale, if indeed it was trying to take certain teenagers’ minds off their dread of returning to school, is that seeing animals in captivity might have the opposite effect than the one intended. These creatures are, after all, even more subject to the rules of human society than the teens, since they are prisoners.

As it turns out, the zoo’s idea wasn’t an original one. The Mainichi points out that in August 2015, the city library of Kamakura did something similar by tweeting that if you would “rather die” than go back to school, why not spend the day at the library instead? As an institution that provides enlightenment through reading, a library makes more sense as a sanctuary than a zoo.

But what’s intriguing about these cases is that neither Ueno Zoo nor the Kamakura municipal library seems to have come under fire for suggesting that kids at risk should skip school. Even when Naoki Ogi, a prominent media pundit who specializes in education issues, spoke directly to such children in a recent Tokyo Shimbun op-ed, he said there was nothing wrong with staying home.

“It doesn’t mean you are avoiding school,” he wrote. “It is as if you were escaping from a natural disaster in order to save your own life. Don’t feel bad or guilty about it, and if you do feel that way, remember you will recover from this feeling later.” He also told parents that if they sense something amiss they should discourage their sons and daughters from going to school.

Of course, schools themselves are not telling students to stay home, and in some cases local educational committees have tried to come up with their own countermeasures. On Aug. 30, TV Asahi ran a feature about a program in Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, that provides students with smart-phone apps they can use to report bullying incidents to their schools directly and anonymously. As one student said, the app is helpful in that the user can type out a message rather than speak directly to a person, which bullied students tend to avoid.

However, it’s not clear from the report how the school district will use this information to prevent suicides. Four years ago, the government enacted an anti-bullying law that compels schools to investigate reasons for student suicides, but in certain instances educators have been accused of using the investigations to avoid responsibility. In July, parents of a 15-year-old girl who killed herself in 2015 said the board of education in Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture, purposely formulated a survey of students that implied their daughter’s problems had less to do with bullying at school than with general depression.

There seems to be no sure, permanent solution to the teen suicide problem, but at least skipping school temporarily removes a source of anxiety for an adolescent who may have suicidal impulses. And sometimes a temporary solution is enough to prevent a permanent tragedy.