While the number of people taking their own lives continues to decline in Japan, suicides involving youths under the age of 20 are a growing problem. The number of suicides across the country last year fell to 20,840 for the ninth consecutive year-on-year decline — significantly down from the peak of 34,427 in 2003. But the number of children who killed themselves increased by 32 to 599, and the ratio of suicides per 100,000 children rose to 2.8, the worst on record, although the suicide rate is still far lower than in other age groups.
In 2017, suicide for the first time was the leading cause of death among youths aged 10 to 14, accounting for 23 percent of all deaths in this age group. While accidents and cancer have sharply declined as causes of children’s deaths over the past 50 years, the number of suicides in this age group has more than tripled.
The number of suicides among children tends to increase sharply when a long holiday comes to an end — such as when summer vacation is over and a new semester starts at the beginning of September in most schools. It is often speculated that children feel psychological pressure just as classes start again. Compared with suicides among people in other age groups, however, much remains unknown as to what exactly prompts children to take their own lives.
Since many of the children who kill themselves have no previous history of attempting suicide, the people around them often fail to notice warning signs until it is too late. All parties involved in combating the problem should review the measures taken so far and see if they are effective in alerting people to warning signs and cries for help among children.
The number of suicides in Japan spiked in the late 1990s when economic woes after the burst of the bubble boom deepened, and the figure stayed above 30,000 for 14 consecutive years through 2011. The basic law for dealing with the problem, which was introduced in 2006, called on local governments to create programs and offer consultation services to help stop people from taking their own lives.
The outline of anti-suicide measures adopted by the government in 2007 set a target of reducing the suicide rate by at least 20 percent from the 2005 level by 2016 — a goal that was achieved in 2015. An update of the outline in 2017 called for cutting the rate by at least 30 percent from the 2015 level by 2026.
Over the years, the suicide rate among people in their 40s to 60s dropped significantly and it has also been on a downward trend among those in their 20s and 30s. However, the rate among youths between the ages of 10 to 19 has remained nearly flat.
According to the 2019 edition of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s white paper on measures against suicide, problems at school were the largest cause of suicides among youths up to the age of 19, followed by health problems and family problems. Among the school problems that triggered children’s suicides were poor academic performance, troubles concerning further education and relationships with classmates. Depression was listed as a primary cause of suicide among high school girls.
Statistics show bullying at the bottom of the list of suicide causes among schoolchildren. But it is believed that bullying is identified as the cause only when there is clear evidence, such as notes left by the children who took their own lives, so the true figure could be higher. According to the education ministry, schools nationwide reported the suicides of a total of 250 children in fiscal 2017, and at least 10 of them were found to have been the victims of bullying.
In a shocking crime that came to light in October 2017, a man allegedly killed nine people — including four girls aged 15 to 19 — and mutilated their bodies after most of the victims posted suicidal messages on Twitter and were lured into contact with the suspect.
That crime prompted the government to offer consultation services on social media as part of its efforts to fight the suicide problem. As of last March, a total of 22,725 people used the service, and minors accounted for 44 percent, followed by 41 percent by those in their 20s. Primary topics discussed in the consultations included mental problems, suicidal musings, and family and school issues.
It is believed that in many cases involving the suicide of youths, multiple factors that are intertwined in complex ways eventually lead the children to take their own lives. By looking more closely into what triggers such suicides, we should examine how we can identify their distress signals and take pre-emptive action to save their lives.