From next spring, Japan will revive mental health education in high schools, axed four decades ago, following a record number of youth suicides and concerns over the stressful effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the government’s new curriculum guidelines for senior high schools, health and physical education textbooks for use in spring 2022 will feature descriptions of prevention and coping methods to help mentally distressed students deal with problems.

Emiko Michigami, a 60-year-old school nurse at Saitama Prefectural Soka Higashi High School, is one faculty member already on the front line searching for ways to best handle the mental health education of her students.

“Do you feel stressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Mental instability can occur with anybody and needs to be dealt with promptly,” Michigami told some 40 first-year students in her class for mental health in February.

Mental ailments tend to happen when a person’s daily life is disrupted, Michigami said. Referring to government data, she points out that mental disorders can affect one in five people.

As a member of the School Mental Health Project, Michigami has been involved in the preparation of educational teaching aids related to mental health. She began to offer an annual comprehensive course on mental health at her high school in Soka, Saitama Prefecture, six years ago. So far, some 320 first-year students have attended.

Noting that some students never realize that stress may be at the root of a health issue they have, Michigami said, “I try to teach them the proper way to deal with their problems.”

In her class, Michigami has students do role-playing exercises, giving advice to their friends, and urges them to freely visit the school’s healthcare office for consultations instead of dealing with mental health problems alone.

She gets students to write down their feedback on a worksheet, which she shares with other teachers at the school, so the faculty can work together to ensure students are being looked after properly.

Emiko Michigami, a school nurse, says some students never realize that stress may be at the root of some health issues. | KYODO
Emiko Michigami, a school nurse, says some students never realize that stress may be at the root of some health issues. | KYODO

The new curriculum guidelines have added “prevention of and recovery from mental disorders” for health and physical education.

Students will not only learn about the mechanics of mental illness but also that anyone is susceptible and that there is a higher likelihood of recovery if the disease is detected and treated in the early stages.

The school textbooks describe, among other content, celebrities’ experiences of recovering from depression and mental disorders as well as methods of coping with stress.

According to the Japan Sports Agency, schools scrapped the mental illness category from the curriculum in fiscal 1982.

But as depression and other mental ailments are considered a reason for an increase in suicides in recent years among elementary, junior high and high school students, a revival of mental health education was deemed necessary to address the current crisis.

Indeed, childhood suicide has become more serious during the coronavirus pandemic. Last year, the number of suicides among elementary, junior high and high school students reached a record 499, and the pace has accelerated since May last year.

Multiple studies abroad show that the peak onset of mental illness is in the early teens, according to Tsukasa Sasaki, a professor of health education at the University of Tokyo.

Although he welcomes the revival of mental health education as a mandatory course for senior high school students, Sasaki said it “ideally should be introduced into compulsory education” at elementary and junior high schools.

As classes on mental health education are expected to result in more opportunities for students to seek consultations, Sasaki stressed that schools need to establish a broad network of cooperation from health and physical education teachers to school nurses and administrative staff.

“The transfer of knowledge alone cannot help distressed children,” Sasaki 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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