Measures to reduce the youth suicide rate

The government’s latest update to its program dealing with the persistent problem of suicides calls for a 30 percent cut in the ratio of suicides per 100,000 people — which is declining but still the worst among the Group of Seven countries — in the next decade. What’s worrying is that the ratio has remained roughly flat among youths under 20, including those cornered into taking their own lives after being bullied at school. Suicide is the top cause of death among Japanese from those in their late teens to people in their 30s.

Among the efforts to stop youth suicides, the new measures adopted last week call for developing a system to provide counseling on social networking sites to schoolchildren suffering from bullying as well as promoting education in schools that encourages troubled kids to cry out for help. For such efforts to work, teachers and school officials must be counted on to act when distressed children ask them for help, and support needs to be provided to enable them to do the job.

The number of people who killed themselves in Japan in 2016 was 21,897 — the seventh annual decline in a row and down sharply from the peak of 34,427 in 2003, when the number is believed to have surged due to economic hardships in the aftermath of the collapse of the bubble boom in the early 1990s. The number has been on a decline after topping 30,000 every year from 1998 to 2011. Still, the suicide rate of 18.5 per 100,000 people as of 2015 remains higher than in other major economies.

The government’s program, updated every five years since 2007, established a target of reducing the figure by 30 percent so that it will fall in line with the ratio in such countries as the United States and Germany. Behind such a target is the sense of crisis that the situation surrounding suicides in this country is still “in a state of emergency.”

The measures spelled out in the program to address the causes of suicide include reducing the number of work hours at companies — in view of the high-profile case of a Dentsu Inc. employee who killed herself in 2015 after suffering from overwork-induced depression — as well as efforts to monitor the mental health of company workers and stop workplace harassment by managers and superiors, building a system to prevent post-maternity depression by providing care for women right after giving birth and support their child-rearing, and promoting social awareness and understanding of LGBT issues to prevent harassment against sexual minorities.

A key feature of the program is its emphasis on measures to tackle suicides among the younger generation — which the government deems to be a serious problem. While the suicide rate has been falling noticeably among people in their 40s or older, the decline is slower among those in their 20s and 30s, and the rate has remained nearly flat among teenagers since 2008. Some experts say government measures to deal with suicides have so far focused on middle-aged and elderly people, and that not enough has been done to address the problem among youths.

The education ministry and prefectural boards of education offer 24-hour telephone counseling to schoolchildren. Given that elementary and junior high school students use digital social networks more often than the phone for communications, the program calls for the use of SNS to listen to and give advice to children who suffer bullying at schools. The education ministry plans to test-launch such a system in fiscal 2018. The program also says that schoolchildren should be taught how they can seek out help when they are in trouble — instead of suffering alone and becoming isolated.

For such efforts to function effectively, there needs to be trust on the part of the distressed children that their cries for help will be heard and properly addressed by teachers and school officials. What’s worrying in that respect is that in some recent cases of children who killed themselves after being bullied at school, their parents filed complaints that probes by the schools or local boards of education to look into their cases did not recognize bullying as the cause of their suicide. In the suicide of a 15-year-old girl at a junior high school in Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture, the municipal board of education had to reverse its decision that it could not confirm the girl had been bullied after the parents cast doubts about the neutrality of the probe by a third-party panel.

If these examples are taken as an indication of the tendency of schools and education authorities to try to cover up bullying on their watch, trust in government efforts to reach out to the bullied children may be in doubt.