Every year, slightly more than 30,000 people kill themselves in Japan. Compared with other countries, the situation is particularly grim. The nation’s suicide rate, calculated in terms of the number of suicides per 100,000 people, stands at 25.3 — compared with 38.7 in Russia, 17.5 in France, 13.5 in Germany, 11.7 in Canada, 10.4 in the United States, 7.5 in Britain and 7.1 in Italy. Japan’s figure is the 10th highest in the world and the worst among developed countries.
Last year, the government established a joint committee comprising officials from government ministries and agencies concerned to work out “comprehensive measures” to combat the problem. This rather belated move is welcome. The government now regards suicide as something society as a whole must deal with, rather than an individual problem only.
The year 1998 was a turning point in Japan’s suicide toll. Through 1997, the number of suicides was slightly less than 25,000 annually. The number jumped from 24,391 in 1997 to 32,863 in 1998. Since then, the number has hovered around that level. The number of suicides by males greatly increased — from 16,416 in 1997 to 23,013 in 1998. The number of suicides by females rose from 7,975 to 9,850 in the same period. In 2004, Japan recorded 32,325 suicides — 23,272 by males and 9,053 by females. It is said that for every suicide, there are about 10 attempted suicides.
Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death among males in their 20s and 30s. The suicide rate is especially high among males over the age of 40. According to the National Police Agency’s statistics, health problems were responsible for 14,786 suicides and financial problems triggered another 7,947 suicides in 2004. Family problems were behind about 3,000 suicides and work-related problems caused about 2,000 suicides.
Statistics alone do not paint a full picture of the problem. Additional factors behind suicides include overwork and unemployment due to the prolonged economic slump, the aging of the population and health problems, including mental diseases. The joint committee will analyze details related to the suicide problem from both medical and social angles as well as push for the implementation of many kinds of measures to help prevent suicides.
The committee aims to reduce the number of suicides to about 25,000 a year from the current level in 10 years. An encouraging sign for the committee’s efforts is the fact that Finland, which saw its suicide rate climb from 15.5 in 1950 to 30.3 in 1990, succeeded in reducing the suicide rate by 20 percent in six years and 30 percent in 12 years (from 1990) through its National Suicide Prevention Project, which began in 1986.
Akita Prefecture, which has the highest suicide rate among Japan’s prefectures — 38.5 in 2000 and 44.6 in 2003 — has its own success story. Four towns in the prefecture, whose combined suicide rate was 68 in 2000, succeeded in reducing the rate by about 30 percent. In 2000 they started “model projects” centered around mental-health counseling and education. They mobilized volunteers for counseling and sought to create an atmosphere in which people could talk more openly about problems that could lead to suicide. Their combined suicide rate dropped to 49.5 in 2003. Two more municipalities have joined the project. In the six towns, the number of suicides halved from 30 in 2001 to 15 in 2004.
A study group of the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry has found that about 70 percent of those who committed or attempted suicide had not talked with anyone about their problems beforehand. The joint committee can get a cue from the experience in Akita Prefecture. A list of contact numbers for counseling on a wide range of matters including not only medical and mental-health services but also bankruptcy, domestic violence and nursing care of aged people was distributed to every household in the municipalities concerned.
Another study shows that three-quarters of people who contemplate suicide have mental disorders and that about a half of these people are suffering from depression. But three-quarters of those experiencing depression are not receiving medical treatment. Efforts should be made to strengthen cooperation among volunteers, medical experts and municipal workers in improving and expanding counseling networks at workplaces, schools and community facilities — the main pillar of the joint committee’s measures. Helping people suffering from depression, including intervention when necessary, should become an important part of the services.
Volunteer organizations giving advice to suicidal people or helping bereaved families of suicide victims should receive public financial support. If local governments set a numerical target for reducing suicides from area to area, their efforts would become more credible.
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