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Suicide surge feared in Japan as pandemic wreaks havoc on prevention groups and hotlines

Some fear a repeat of the spike in suicides that followed the 1998 financial crisis

JIJI

Concerns about a spike in suicides are mounting as more people are thrown into economic hardship and uncertainty by the coronavirus pandemic while support groups cut back on their efforts as infections grow.

The government is calling on people to actively use telephones and social media for help instead of face-to-face consultations, but many aid groups involved in suicide prevention are struggling to secure personnel and facilities.

The Federation of Inochi No Denwa, which comprises 52 suicide hotline groups, has been active for about 50 years, but about a quarter of its membership has suspended activities amid the epidemic.

Other organizations have either suspended operations or scaled back operating hours.

The working environment for these groups tends to become closed and crowded, leading to close contact — and a higher risk of group infection. It is also difficult to find manpower because of requests to limit commuting.

The Tokyo suicide prevention center, which gets about 10,000 phone consultations annually, suspended services on Wednesday.

“This is the first such situation in our 22-year history,” said the center’s manager, Machiko Nakayama. “I am full of guilt when I think about people in need of consultations, but we won’t be able to continue operations if anything bad happens,” she said.

For various reasons including the age of its staff and issues linked to its facilities, the center is finding it difficult to offer consultations through any means other than telephones but is looking for a way to reopen as swiftly as possible.

“All of our staff members are volunteers,” Nakayama said. “It would be easier to set up a system if we have aid for members commuting by personal cars or taxi, or for covering expenses regarding overnight stays at lodging facilities.”

According to Yasuyuki Shimizu, head of Lifelink, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention, many people seeking advice via social media are young, but many of the support groups don’t have the know-how to conduct consultations online.

Lifelink began asking its internet-savvy staffers to work from home. But it is still having difficulty finding enough personnel because the option was offered only to those who vowed to work from a private room and to use a personal computer exclusively for such consultations.

It is also worried about the psychological burden of handling consultations alone from home.

“Consultations are increasing day by day, and we fear a repeat of the situation when suicides increased following the 1998 financial crisis,” Shimizu said, emphasizing the need to swiftly set up a sufficient system for the pandemic.

According to an emergency survey by another group led by Shimizu for the coronavirus crisis, over 80 percent of the 55 suicide prevention groups that responded as of the end of April said they had suspended or reduced activities.

To resume operations, 60.4 percent of the groups called for providing information on preventing infections. Other requests included financial aid for introducing call transfer equipment and internet-related devices, sought by 52.1 percent, and the provision of face masks and other goods, cited by 45.8 percent.

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