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Japan’s media out of step with mental health issues

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

In January, a couple in Neyagawa, Osaka Prefecture, were arrested for allegedly confining their daughter for at least 15 years before she froze to death in December at the age of 33. The couple told police they had kept her in the tiny room where her body was found because she was mentally ill. They insisted they fed their daughter properly, but she weighed only 19 kilograms when her naked body was found in the unheated room.

In an essay posted on the portal site Mag2 News, Tatsuya Hikichi, a journalist who specializes in mental health issues, called media reports of the mental illness “misleading.” All information had come from the police, and none of it elaborated on the nature of her illness and how her condition developed. The only aspect of the woman’s condition reported by the police was that she was “schizophrenic,” and that became the only context the public had with which to form a picture of her. According to Hikichi, media coverage invariably reinforced the negative image most people have of those who suffer from schizophrenia, especially given some accounts that said the woman was also “violent.”

Hikichi stressed that the police only passed on information that would be helpful to the prosecution, but added that the media’s role, especially in such instances, is to verify what the authorities are saying. Hikichi believed the media had neglected its mission in this situation, since they failed to question the reasons for the woman’s confinement. He quotes various newspapers as saying the parents kept her locked up because they “didn’t want the neighbors to know” about her, or even to know she existed, the implication being that readers might sympathize with the parents’ actions. As if to confirm this suggestion, the Feb. 8 issue of the weekly magazine Josei Seven ran an article about a man whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teen. Convinced his son’s condition was the result of “genes” or upbringing, he blamed himself, but in any case was unable to control his son’s unpredictable tendencies and fell into a state of despair. He understands how the Neyagawa couple felt.

Hikichi finds this kind of reporting not only irresponsible but also dangerous. He says the word “schizophrenia” is a term used for the sake of convenience, and that it can describe a wide range of conditions. About 1 percent of the Japanese population exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia. It is a difficult illness to understand, but one thing almost all experts agree on is that people diagnosed with schizophrenia are treatable and can lead stable lives. It is a physical condition, but it is also closely related to environment in that the person’s emotional circumstances are affected by their family’s attitudes. By constantly repeating terms such as “mental disorder” and “violence,” the media makes the matter worse.

In the wake of Hikichi’s essay, NHK aired a documentary on Feb. 3 about a 66-year-old man who spent most of his life in mental institutions. NHK has been covering the man — whom they call by his first name, Tokio — since 2014, when he was discharged from a facility in Fukushima Prefecture and started living on his own for the first time in 39 years. Until 2011, Tokio was in a hospital located 5 km from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. After the accident on March 11, the hospital’s residents were evacuated to another facility in the prefecture, where the head doctor re-evaluated Tokio and wondered what he was doing there. Of the 40 people under the doctor’s care, only two really needed to be institutionalized, he said.

NHK tried to find out why Tokio, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young man, was isolated for so long. Basically, NHK discovered, he was the victim of policy and opportunism. In 1951, the government, in developing its postwar economic recovery plan, determined that people with “mental disorders” cost Japan ¥100 billion a year in lost productivity, and not just with regard to their perceived inability to contribute. Their families would sacrifice employment in order to take care of them, so the idea was to remove the mentally ill from society. Then, in 1964, U.S. Ambassador Edwin Reischauer was attacked by a young man who was reported as being schizophrenic. Since then, the term has been closely associated with violence.

The government encouraged isolation by rewarding hospitals for taking in mentally ill patients. NHK found that hospitals can make more money simply by accepting them and, as long as they remained in their care, the hospitals were guaranteed subsidies. Japan accounts for 20 percent of all the world’s beds reserved for institutionalized mental patients.

This official approach helps explain the Neyagawa couple’s confinement of their daughter and the media’s lack of urgency in reporting it. The couple’s actions are seen as being, if not justifiable, then at least understandable. It also explains the government’s lack of accountability for its policy, carried out between 1949 and 1996, of sterilizing people diagnosed with mental illnesses — as well as people with other disabilities. The government will not apologize to or compensate victims because the practice was legal at the time. In an article that appeared in the Asahi Shimbun last June, science writer Junji Kayukawa said the government’s excuse for not owning up to this human rights violation is that it wasn’t doing anything that was illegal and many of the victims’ families gave their consent to the sterilization. Similarly, people diagnosed with mental illness were sent to institutions based only on requests from their families. NHK showed two instances of families refusing to allow relatives discharged from mental institutions back in their lives.

According to Kayukawa, this idea that people who aren’t “normal” need to disappear still exists. Referring to the July 2016 murder of 19 people at a facility for people with disabilities, he wrote, “Remember the killings in Sagamihara.”