National / Social Issues

Japan's drop in suicides may not hold as fallout from pandemic grows

by Tomohiro Osaki

STAFF WRITER

Health ministry statistics show suicides in April fell nearly 20 percent from a year earlier, countering widespread concerns the coronavirus pandemic would drive many to take their lives.

But officials and experts warn there might be a resurgence. Despite April’s figure, they say, the fact remains that the fallout from COVID-19 is taking a toll on the livelihoods and mental health of many across the nation, depriving them of jobs and increasing the risk of domestic violence and child abuse.

Further exacerbating the situation is the fact that many suicide prevention groups are finding themselves on the verge of dysfunction after being forced to downsize or suspend activities due to the virus.

The ministry’s monthly statistics show the number of suicides in April stood at 1,455 on a preliminary basis, down 19.8 percent from 1,814 the previous year, marking the biggest year-on-year drop in five years. Speculation soon ensued online that the ongoing school closures and increase in telecommuting may have spared many from distress linked to bullying and overwork.

“It is likely that the coronavirus played no small part in causing” the drop, a ministry official said. But, he emphasized, whether the school closures or remote work had anything to do with it is open to further scrutiny.

Yasuyuki Shimizu, who runs Lifelink, a Tokyo-based nonprofit suicide prevention organization, agreed. Shimizu, however, said there may be a bigger factor at play: a sense of solidarity that often blossoms in a disaster.

Not only does calamity tend to foster camaraderie, as evidenced by online campaigns such as #stayathome, but those who are suicidal sometimes take comfort in the fact there are others like themselves in the throes of angst, he said.

But if history is any indication, this illusion of togetherness may not last long. In May 2011 for example, suicides spiked two months after the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns devastated the Tohoku region — far eclipsing the increase marked in April that year. Shimizu warned this could happen again.

“Should the pandemic move toward subsiding, a return to normalcy enjoyed by some people will widen a gap with those still unable to reconstruct their lives. People previously reassured by the plight of others may start to feel as if they are being left behind,” Shimizu said.

Even if it doesn’t, Shimizu said, suicides will likely rise as the pandemic causes financial and domestic strains for many.

“Whether COVID-19 drags on or not, I think it’s unavoidable the risk of suicides will increase going forward,” he said.

This sense of urgency is shared by a nonpartisan group of lawmakers tasked with preventing suicide.

In a petition submitted to health minister Katsunobu Kato in March, the group said the COVID-19 saga is eerily reminiscent of 1998, when unemployment linked to the bankruptcies of Yamaichi Securities Co. and Hokkaido Takushoku Bank led many middle-aged men to take their own lives.

To prevent a repeat of that nightmarish year, the group called on Kato to, among other things, bolster hotline services and provide robust measures against joblessness and homelessness. The health ministry now offers a social-media hotline specializing in coronavirus-related matters.

To rein in suicides, Shimizu says the government should prioritize instilling a “greater sense of security” among the public by firming up what he called the “last safety net” — welfare benefits.

Tallies compiled by NHK show that the number of those who applied for welfare benefits in Tokyo’s 23 wards last month soared 31 percent from a year earlier, pointing to the growing economic hardship caused by the virus.

Although the government has unveiled plans to dole out subsidies to businesses and freelance workers, Shimizu said the priority should be to make the welfare program — a universal safeguard that is the last defense against destitution — more accessible by temporarily easing its rigid requirements for eligibility. This, he said, will allow the government to send a reassuring message to those in a bind that “no matter what happens, their protection will be guaranteed in the end.”

The heightened risk of suicides during a pandemic suggests NPOs and other groups providing hotlines are playing more important roles than ever as a buffer against stress. But a recent survey shows many of these organizations are in a tough spot themselves and unable to maintain the same level of support as before the epidemic.

A poll by the Japan Suicide Countermeasures Promotion Center in late April found that 83.6 percent of these organizations have had to either scale down or halt activities because the virus made gatherings and face-to-face consultations difficult.

Groups surveyed also cited difficulties ensuring proper ventilation, because the highly sensitive nature of their hotline work often necessitates doors and windows being shut tight. Since some of these organizations consist primarily of elderly volunteers, concerns were raised as well that their lives might be jeopardized should they continue business as usual.

Tokyo Jisatsu Boshi Center (Tokyo suicide prevention center) is among the NPOs forced to downsize operations. In early April it was forced to suspend its nightly hotline in for the first time since its debut in 1998, representative Machiko Nakayama said.

“In this stay-at-home period, many people feel disconnected from society, isolated, grappling with a wave of anxiety as they lose jobs, see their income dwindle and feel more and more uncertain about their future,” Nakayama said.

“So when we had to temporarily shut down the hotline, we felt terribly sorry (because) now is exactly the kind of time where we want to be useful and share their agony,” she said.

But it is this strong sense of mission that has prodded her organization to take steps toward recovery, however tenuously.

After being forced to halt telephone consultations in April, the group managed to resume the service last week, although its availability is down to once a week on Tuesday nights.

“Next month, we hope to ratchet it up to twice a week,” Nakayama said.

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