Citizens of Japan are feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic; depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues have taken the country by storm over the last 10 months, resulting in an agonizing spike in suicide, particularly among young women.
Job losses, social isolation, and financial stress have all taken their toll; in fact, significantly more people have died from suicide this year than from the virus, leading some to wonder whether the cure has been worse than the disease.
Japan has been trying to lower the national suicide rate for years. The issue remains complex, with many different factors at play including social and economic pressure to succeed, long hours at work, and limited access to mental health care. Pictures of workers packed together on midnight commuter trains have gone viral over the last few years as mental health advocates continue to sound the alarm.
The suicide rate hit its peak in 2003, when 34,000 people took their own lives. The country started investing millions of dollars into combating what’s known as “karoshi”, which means being worked to death, by scaling back overtime for millions of workers. The campaign started to pay off. The country was down to 20,000 suicides last year, the lowest number on record since the country started tracking rates in 1978.
However, Japan still has the highest suicide rate of all G-7 nations with 16 per 100,000 citizens. It had hoped to lower that number to 13 per 100,000 citizens by the year 2026, but it’s not clear if that’s still realistic for a nation encased in grief and anxiety.
COVID-19 in Japan
The suicide rate in Japan was on a downward trajectory for the first part of this year, but things took a deadly turn in July. After several months of staying at home and hoping for an end to the pandemic, many people started taking their own lives.
The mental health crisis now seems to get worse every month as the pandemic rages on. Japan’s National Police Agency says 2,153 people took their own lives in October alone, more than the total number of people in the country who have died from COVID-19. That marks the fourth straight month of increases in suicides in the country.
So far, 17,000 people have died from suicide this year alone in Japan. The trend appears to be affecting young women at alarming rates.
From childcare problems to pandemic-related job loss and financial stress, women in Japan and abroad are feeling the pinch from all sides.
Psychiatrist Chiyoko Ueda says she has seen the painful effects of the pandemic at her clinic, where she treats a variety of patients suffering from mental distress. She says she hears statements such as, “My self-esteem is low because I’m worried about money; The stay-home situation has disrupted my life; My kids and I don’t get along.”
So, it seems that money and societal expectations play a significant role. Japan made headlines earlier in the year after keeping the virus at bay without imposing mandatory shutdowns. The country instead focused on educating residents on the potential health risks, making sure everyone had access to basic medical care, and “retrospective tracing” in which professionals would use technology to retroactively retrace a person’s steps once they have been infected with the virus.
Today, everyone knows how to protect themselves from the virus, but avoiding financial and emotional despair has been a challenge.
After a deadly spike in July, Japanese authorities increased suicide prevention funding, adding an additional $10 million to the $24 million budget.
Rates are also rising in the U.S., which had a suicide rate of 14 per 100,000 in 2018.
When the pandemic first started taking off stateside, experts warned it could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair,” those caused by financial stress, substance abuse, unemployment, and prolonged social isolation.
Dr. Vivian Pender, president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, believes it will only get worse as the months go on. “I think in a way the worst is yet to come, in terms of mental health. There’s gonna be tremendous grief and mourning for all the lost people, and the lost opportunities, and the lost dreams and hopes that people had.”
Even as we try to save as many lives as possible, the damage is being done right before our eyes. People are losing their savings along with dreams of a better life.
Money and social status can affect mental health. Being financially sound may be just as important as fighting the disease on the ground.