The number of elementary, junior high and high school students who killed themselves in Japan hit a record high of 479 in 2020, up sharply from 339 the previous year, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to the education ministry.
Notably, the number of suicides by female high school students nearly doubled from the previous year to 138.
The ministry will carry out a detailed analysis to see whether the pandemic has had an impact on the rise in suicide cases among students.
The figure, which is based on the health ministry's statistics on suicides, was reported Monday at a meeting of an expert panel focused on preventing suicides among students.
Of the total, suicides by elementary school students came to 14, up from six in 2019, while those by junior high school students stood at 136, up from 96, and by high school students at 329, up from 237.
Suicides were highest in August, at 64, with the number of female high school students committing suicide in the month up nearly sevenfold from a year before to 23.
Last year, many schools brought forward the second term after summer break to August, from usual September, to make up for school closures during the first state of emergency in April and May.
Key reasons cited for suicides remained the same as other years, such as worries over future choices, weak academic performance and bad relationships with parents, but an increase was seen in the number of suicide cases related to mental disorders and depression.
The expert panel is expected to discuss possible reasons behind the rise in suicide cases among students, and measures to prevent such cases.
During Monday's panel meeting, some participants called for tablet devices, set to be distributed to each student at elementary and junior high schools by the end of March, to be used to check student stress levels and for private interviews as ways to prevent suicides.
A separate survey released recently by the National Center for Child Health and Development showed that as many as 30% of high school students have displayed symptoms of depression due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The online survey involving a total of 715 students, ranging from fourth grade to high school, was carried out in November and December last year, when the number of COVID-19 cases increased.
The survey found that 30% of the 344 high school students surveyed had experienced symptoms of moderate to severe depression.
Such symptoms were also found in 15% of the 261 elementary school students and 24% of the 110 junior high school students surveyed.
Regarding the statement "I've thought I might as well die, or I've thought of hurting myself in one way or another," 6% of the total responded they had "almost every day," with 16% of the total saying they had engaged in self-harm behavior such as pulling their hair out.
In the space where students were invited to write freely about their feelings, one student wrote, "Some people infected with the coronavirus have been discriminated against or called names."
"There's no freedom because we're bound by the coronavirus," wrote another.
Mayumi Hangai, a doctor involved in conducting the survey, said it is likely that "an increasing number of children are experiencing symptoms of depression due to the stresses of life under the prolonged COVID-19 epidemic."
"As children are not good at understanding and releasing their stress, I ask parents and other guardians to listen closely to their children and empathize with their feelings," she said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 119 in Japan for immediate assistance. The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit telljp.com. For those in other countries, visit www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html for a detailed list of resources and assistance.
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