In addition to taking more than 1.46 million lives so far, the global COVID-19 pandemic has led to mass unemployment, social isolation, domestic violence and anxiety. Experts fear the consequence of a world-wide mental health epidemic.
In Japan, the latest government findings reveal a shocking truth — death by suicide killed more people in October than COVID-19 has over the entire year.
According to Japan’s National Police Agency, the country’s monthly death by suicide figures rose to 2,153 in October, while the total number of deaths from COVID-19, according to the health ministry sits at 2,087.
Only a handful of major economies publish up-to-date suicide data from their countries – Japan is one of the few. Australia’s most recent data is from 2019. The most recent national findings for the US are from 2018. The data from Japan may give other countries effective insights into the impact of pandemic measures on mental health, and provide information to which groups are most vulnerable.
Michiko Ueda is an associate professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, and specializes in public health and suicide prevention. She told CNN that despite there being no lockdown in Japan, there were still large spikes in the number of people taking their lives.
“That suggests other countries might see a similar or even bigger increase in the number of suicides in the future,” she said. Research conducted by the World Health Organization indicate that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
In 2016, it had a suicide mortality rate of 18.5 per 100,000 people, coming behind South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate in all Asian countries. Japan’s average is almost three times the annual global average of 10.6 per 100,000 people. In Australia, in 2019, there were 3318 suicide deaths recorded at a rate of 12.9 deaths per 100,000 population (816 were women)
Contributing factors that have caused these concerning statistics in Japan include extended working hours, school pressure, social isolation and a history of cultural stigma regarding mental health issues.
According to the health ministry, between 2009 to 2019, the number of suicides had been decreasing in Japan, falling to about 20,000 last year — the lowest number since the country’s health authorities started keeping records in the late 70s. The pandemic appears to have overturn that trend, and the rise in suicides is unevenly affecting women.
The number of women taking their own lives in the country of more than 126.4 million people has increased. Last month, suicides among women increased almost 83 percent compared to the same month the previous year. Death by suicide by men rose almost 22 percent over the same time period.
Women make up a larger percentage of part-time workers in hospitality and retail industries where layoffs were hardest hit.
Eriko Kobayashi, a 43-year old author, NGO employee and suicide survivor told CNN many of her friends has been laid off. “Japan has been ignoring women,” she said. “This is a society where the weakest people are cut off first when something bad happens.”
A global study involving over 10,000 people found that 27 percent of women reported increased challenges with mental health during the pandemic, compared to 10 percent of men.
The study, which was conducted by non-profit international aid organisation CARE, titled “She Told Us So: Rapid Gender Analysis – Closing the Data Gaps to Build Back Equal,” also found that 55 percent of women reported that COVID-related income loss has had the biggest impact on them. In many countries, women eat the least and often, are the last to eat too — 41 percent of them reported not having enough food. Additionally, women who have retained their jobs were often forced to take on child-education responsibilities at home during the pandemic.
Out of all the G-7 countries, Japan is the only one where suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 39. Suicides among people under 20 in the country had been increasing even before the pandemic — increasing pressures compounded by pandemic restrictions including social isolation, domestic abuse, and financial difficulties.
According to Naho Morisaki, a chief researcher at the National Center for Child Health and Development in Tokyo, school closures during the pandemic meant more academic pressures were placed on young people.
The Center, which includes departments in clinical research and epidemiology conducted an internet survey in June of almost 9,000 parents and children and found that 75 percent of Japanese schoolchildren showed signs of stress due to the pandemic. Naho Morisaki believes there is an inextricable link between the anxiety experienced by children and their parents.
“The children who are self-injuring themselves have the stress, and then they can’t speak out to their family because probably they see that their moms or dads are not able to listen to them.”
All of these issues are magnified by the country’s stigma against admitting loneliness and struggle. Michiko Ueda from Waseda University believes the “shame” of talking about depression often leads people to spiral into harmful behaviours.
“It’s not something that you talk about in public, you don’t talk about it with friends or anything,” she said. “(It) could lead to a delay in seeking help, so that’s one potential cultural factor that we have in here.”
“When I lived in America, I knew people who went through therapy, and it’s a more common thing to do, but in Japan it’s very difficult. It’s shameful for others to know your weakness, so you hide everything, hold it in yourself, and endure,” Kobayashi said. “We need to create the culture where it’s OK to show your weakness and misery.”
In the last few weeks, doctors in Japan are warning its population of a third wave that could intensify over December and January as the country is reporting record-high numbers of Covid-19 cases. Experts including Michiko Ueda are worried that the concerning suicide rates will increase as the economic fallout from the pandemic continues.
“We haven’t even experienced the full economic consequences of the pandemic,” she said. “The pandemic itself can get worse, then maybe there’s a semi-lockdown again; if that happens, then the impact can be huge.”
“We didn’t even have a lockdown, and the impact of Covid is very minimal compared to other countries … but still we see this big increase in the number of suicides. That suggests other countries might see a similar or even bigger increase in the number of suicides in the future.”
How to get help: In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. If you need immediate assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300 22 4636 or www.beyondblue.org.au or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.