Japan suicides jumped 16%. And women have been impacted most

Shoppers walk through the Nishiki market in Kyoto, Japan, on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. Japan expanded its state of emergency beyond the Tokyo region to encompass the country’s other main economic hubs including Osaka, as it battles to contain a record surge in coronavirus cases. Photographer: Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg

There is an increasing concern that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic could harm psychological health and exacerbate suicide risk. Japan had seen a rise in the number of people taking their own lives in recent months, particularly among women and children, even though they fell in the first wave when the government offered generous handouts to people, a survey found.

Suicides by women began to rise in June from a year earlier and in November marked the sixth straight month of increase, logging an 88.6% per cent jump in October, according to provisional National Police Agency data complied on Dec. 16. The total number of suicides from July to November also rose from a year earlier.

Japan is one of the few major economies to disclose timely suicide data – the most recent national data for the U.S., for example, is from 2018. The Japanese data could give other countries insights into the impact of pandemic measures on mental health, and which groups are the most vulnerable.

Counselors of Tokyo Mental Health Square give consultations to clients via private social media chats in Tokyo on Nov. 28, 2020. (Kyodo)

This could be due to a number of complex reasons, including the government’s generous subsidies, reduced working hours and school closure. By contrast, monthly suicide rates increased by 16% during the second wave (July to October 2020), with a larger increase among females (37%) and children and adolescents (49%). Although adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may remain in the long term, its modifiers (such as government subsidies) may not be sustained. Thus, effective suicide prevention-particularly among vulnerable populations-should be an important public health consideration.

“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,” said Michiko Ueda, an associate professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, and an expert on suicides. “That suggests other countries might see a similar or even bigger increase in the number of suicides in the future.”

In recent weeks, Japan has reported record-high daily Covid-19 cases, as doctors warn of a third wave that could intensify in the winter months. Experts worry that the high suicide rate will get worse as the economic fallout continues.

“We haven’t even experienced the full economic consequences of the pandemic,” Ueda said. “The pandemic itself can get worse then maybe there’s a semi-lockdown again; if that happens, then the impact can be huge.”

Compared with some other nations, Japan’s coronavirus restrictions have been relatively relaxed. The country declared a state of emergency but has never imposed a strict lockdown, for example, and its quarantine restrictions for international arrivals have not been as unbending as those in China.

The WHO’s suicide prevention resource for media professionals states they should take particular care in reporting suicides involving celebrities who are often revered by the community and likely to influence the behavior of vulnerable individuals.

“Reports should not glamorize the suicide, should not describe the method in detail, and should comment on its impact on others,” it says, adding that information about where to seek help should be included in any story about suicide.