National / Social Issues

Tokyo NPO tries new strategy to tackle youth suicide — supporting the supporter

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff Writer

Alcoholism, addiction and depression: Few people can overcome these things alone.

In many cases, the warm and ever-present support of well-intending loved ones is a godsend, but in others, it can do more harm than good.

One Tokyo-based nonprofit group, Light Ring, is looking to help people harness the power to help. Its rallying cry? “Sasaete wo sasaeru,” meaning “support the supporter.”

“There are many organizations that support the individual suffering from these conditions — depression, isolation, suicidal thoughts, among others — but there are very few, if any, that provide support for those who support that person,” said Ayaka Ishii, founder and director of Light Ring, an NPO that works on mental health support and suicide prevention.

While conventional forms of suicide prevention usually involve providing mental health services — or better access to them — directly to the individual dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts, Light Ring provides training and support for family, friends and loved ones instead.

“To help someone build a life they want to live is less about doing everything you can for this person, and more about helping them identify the things they can do themselves,” Ishii said. “Of course, that doesn’t mean forsaking them. Rather, it’s important to place trust in their potential and establish a distance that reflects that.”

Ishii, 29, has been working on these issues for nearly a decade. Since Light Ring was granted nonprofit status in February 2012, more than 3,900 people have attended their signature event — Kikutomo Cafe.

The event was initially intended to be an occasion for people dealing with mental health problems, addiction or substance abuse to connect with each other but ended up becoming a gathering for individuals struggling to help someone close to them.

This approach struck a cord with young people, who make up a large part of those who turn up for the events, Ishii said.

Light Ring also works with schools to educate elementary, junior high and high school students on mental health issues and — more importantly, according to Ishii — how to overcome the fear of telling others or seeking help if they’re suffering from stress, anxiety, depression or having suicidal thoughts.

“There aren’t many places in Japanese society where you can be yourself, even at home or among friends,” Ishii said. “These circumstances are conducive to social reclusion and isolation, which can lead to suicide.”

Although the suicide rate among people in their 50s, 60s and 70s has been slowly declining, the same can’t be said for younger people. Suicide remains the No. 1 cause of death among Japanese in their teens, 20s and 30s, and accounts for roughly half of all deaths among people in their 20s, according to a 2017 report by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

Amid this trend, Japan is also grappling with a labor force threatened by low birth and fertility rates as fewer young people marry and have children, as well as a rapidly aging population that is being exacerbated by a climbing mortality rate.

It’s here that Ishii noted the economic angle for suicide prevention, pointing out the tremendous monetary costs.

For society to change, she said, an emotional appeal alone won’t work.

“To reduce medical care and insurance costs, you need to illustrate the economic impact of youth suicide, or else you’ll get pushed aside,” she said. “I’ve been doing this long enough to know that people only change their behavior if you talk money.”

According to the Cabinet Office, more than 90 percent of people in their 20s who take their own life had battled depression or other mental health problems.

Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death among young people in neighboring South Korea as well, but what makes Japan different, Ishii said, is that mental health issues are linked to the deaths more often in the latter. What’s more, she added, is that addiction, substance abuse and depression are criminalized or stigmatized in Japan while rest, self-care and seeking professional help are seen as weak or defeatist.

Hikikomori, truancy, bullying and suicide are, in my eyes, all connected,” Ishii said. “In almost every case, it comes down to an individual not having a space in which they feel safe or a person they can confide in, which can induce depression and ultimately lead to suicide.”

A guiding principle behind Light Ring’s approach — to support the supporter — is the need to give individuals with depression or other mental illnesses the proper amount of space. This can be difficult, Ishii said, because people often have a natural urge to do as much as they can for someone in such cases.

“By learning how to support others, you become less apologetic about opening up and telling people how you really feel. … There’s a correlation between training yourself to support others and knowing how to speak your mind,” she said.

Family members, friends and romantic partners will often bring food, do chores, help pay rent and so on without considering the consequences of their kindness. The problem with that approach, Ishii explained, is that the individual can become dependent, leave the house less, disconnect from others and lose interest in the outside world.

One couple interviewed by The Japan Times, who asked to remain anonymous, were dealing with this exact problem. The girlfriend, in her early 20s, was depressed following a suicide attempt. Her boyfriend came over when he could to clean, bring her food and often helped with rent.

But his good intentions only made the situation worse. His girlfriend stopped leaving her apartment altogether. Not only that, it was taking a toll on his own well-being. Trying to take care of her, it seemed, expended the energy he would normally use to take care of himself.

Then one day, both at the end of their rope, the struggling couple came across Light Ring. The boyfriend attended one of their events where he found, much to his surprise, that he wasn’t alone.

“There are lots of resources for individuals dealing with things like depression, but not so much for people supporting those individuals,” he said. “In that way, Light Ring is very unique.”

Now, five years later, the two are married with a 2-year-old son.

“My wife is doing well. Things are much better now,” he said.

“There’s no reason two people have to deal with these issues alone,” he said. “Having an organization or a third-party or even a friend or family member that can have these discussions and provide new perspectives can be extremely helpful.

“Sometimes the weight is too heavy even for two people, so it’s best to share the burden.”

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