• Kyodo

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Schools across Japan are stepping up measures to reduce student suicides that have been on the rise amid the coronavirus pandemic, holding sessions about mental health and using technology to help students report their moods.

Japan logged a record-high 499 student suicides last year amid the pandemic, with many believed to have felt lonely during school closures that lasted for months to prevent the virus from spreading. The figure for the first half of 2021 was higher than a year ago, government data showed.

At a mental health educational session organized by a junior high school in Wakayama Prefecture in March, a school counselor, explained to around 140 students how to spot signs they may be developing mental health conditions.

The counselor Eriko Fujita, 54, who is also a certified psychologist, advised the second graders to look out for changes in habits, such as eating more sweets and spending more time with pets.

“You can learn about your mental condition by noticing changes in your physical health and behavior,” Fujita said.

A high school girl who was invited to join the session to speak about her experiences said she had reached out to local authorities when she felt her mental health was deteriorating.

“It is not embarrassing to send out an SOS,” she said.

Since the session, more students at the school, which is affiliated with Wakayama University’s Faculty of Education, have consulted with teachers about mental health.

“Awareness of the importance to seek help is spreading,” Fujita said.

Osaka’s education board introduced in April a software application titled “Weather of the Heart” to check students’ mental health. The app is loaded onto tablet computers used by all children at elementary and junior high schools run by the city.

In the morning assembly, students can choose one option out of “sunny,” “cloudy,” “rain” and “thunder” to indicate how they feel that day. The results are automatically sent to teachers’ devices, informing them about changes in the mood of students who picked a different option from before.

“It can be helpful for young teachers with less teaching experience,” said a member of the education board.

By month, the highest number of student suicide cases in 2020 was reported in August at 65, followed by 55 in September, the data showed. The figures suggest students feel most under pressure psychologically when they return to school after the long summer vacation.

Tetsuro Noda, a professor at Hyogo University of Teacher Education, said, “While it is important to facilitate an environment so students can easily send out an SOS, schools must prepare a system to carefully respond to such calls.”

“The government needs to expand assistance at schools by increasing the number of teachers or counselors,” Noda added.

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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