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Why Japanese women’s suicide rate rises during the pandemic

Tokyo-Shortly after Japan stepped up its fight against the coronavirus last spring, Mana Hashimoto began to suffer panic attacks. The stadium where she worked as a personal trainer in Osaka suspended operations, and her friend stayed at home at the government’s recommendation.

Because of fear of being alone, she would call her boyfriend in just a few months and ask him to come over. Even then, she sometimes couldn’t stop crying. Her depression was diagnosed as spiraling earlier this year. She said: “The world I live in is already very small.” “But I think it has become smaller.”


By July, Ms. Hashimoto saw no way out and she tried to commit suicide. Her boyfriend found her, called an ambulance, and saved her life. She is now talking about her experience publicly because she wants to eliminate the stigma associated with talking about mental health in Japan.

Although it is difficult for many people in Japan to become popular, the pressure on women is increasing. As in many countries, more women are unemployed. In Tokyo, Japan’s largest metropolis, about one-fifth of women live alone, and the act of advising him to stay at home and avoid visiting relatives exacerbated the feeling of isolation. While other women are working at home, there are huge differences in housework and childcare, or women who suffer from domestic violence and sexual assault are struggling.

The psychological and physical damage caused by the pandemic has increased, while the suicide rate among women has risen sharply. In Japan, 6,976 women lost their lives last year, an increase of nearly 15% over 2019. This is the first year-on-year increase in more than a decade.

Every suicide (and attempted suicide) represents a personal tragedy rooted in complex causes. However, the increase in the number of women (which lasted for seven consecutive months last year) worries government officials and mental health experts who are committed to reducing the number of people with the highest suicide rate in the world. (Although more men committed suicide last year than women, fewer men committed suicide than in 2019. Overall, the number of suicides increased by less than 4%.)

This situation has exacerbated Japan’s long-term challenges. In a society that emphasizes perseverance, it is still difficult to talk about mental health problems or seek help.

This epidemic also amplifies cultural pressure based on social cohesion and relies on peer pressure to prompt people to comply with government requirements to wear masks and maintain good hygiene habits. Women who are usually designated as primary caregivers sometimes fear public humiliation if they fail to comply with these measures or contract the coronavirus.

Yuki Nishimura, chairman of the Japan Mental Health Service Association, said: “Women bear the burden of preventing the virus.” “Women must take care of the health of their families. They must take care of hygiene. If they do not do well, they will be despised. “

In a widely circulated report, a woman in her 30s recovered from the coronavirus at home and committed suicide. Japanese media grabbed her note and expressed indignation at the possibility of her infecting others and causing them trouble, while experts questioned whether humiliation might make her despair.

Michiko Ueda, an associate professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo, said: “Unfortunately, the current trend is to blame the victim.” Dr. Ueda found in last year’s survey that 40% of respondents were worried that contracting the virus would bring pressure to society. .

Dr. Ueda said: “If you are not one of us, we basically will not support you.” “Moreover, if you have a mental health problem, you will not be one of us.”

Experts also worry that a series of Japanese film and television stars who committed suicide last year may provoke a series of imitative suicides. Since late September, after the popular and award-winning actress Yoko Takeuchi committed suicide, the number of women who committed suicide next month has jumped by nearly 90% compared to last year.

Soon after Ms. Takeuchi’s death, 30-year-old Nao began writing a blog to document her lifelong struggles with depression and eating disorders. She wrote frankly about the attempted suicide three years ago.

In Japan, this openness to mental health struggles is still relatively rare. The celebrity suicide prompted Nao to conceal the name of Nao to protect her privacy, and she wondered how she would react if she suffered depression during the pandemic.

She said: “When you are alone at home, you will feel isolated from society and feel very painful.” “Just imagine whether I am in this situation now. I think the suicide attempt will be much earlier and maybe I will succeed.”

When talking about her challenges, Nao, who is now married, said that she wants to help other people who may feel desperate, especially when so many people are isolated by friends and colleagues.

Nao said: “Knowing that someone is going through or experiencing something similar to you, and knowing that someone is seeking professional help for this and really helps, it encourages people to do similar things.” Nao said she wants to help remove Taboos related to mental illness in Japan.

Nao’s husband can see her struggling with long hours of work and cruel office culture in the consulting company she met for the first time. Then, when she resigned, she felt uneasy.

During the pandemic, women suffered disproportionate unemployment. They make up the majority of employees in the industries most affected by infection control measures, including restaurants, bars and hotels.

Among all professional women, about half hold part-time or contract jobs. When business stagnates, the company lays off these employees first. In the first nine months of last year, 1.44 million people were unemployed, of which more than half were women.

Although Nao quit her counseling job voluntarily to seek psychiatric treatment, she still remembers being troubled by insecurity and unable to pay the rent. When she and her fiance at the time decided to speed up the wedding plan, her father accused her of being selfish.

She recalled: “I just lost everything.”

She said these feelings triggered the depression that led to her suicide attempt. After staying in a psychiatric hospital for a while and continuing to take the medication, her self-confidence improved. She found the digital department of a magazine group, worked four days a week, and can now manage the workload.

In the past, Japan’s suicide rate has soared during economic crises, including after the housing bubble burst in the 1990s and the 2008 global economic downturn.

During those periods, it was men who were most affected by unemployment and had a higher suicide rate. Historically, the suicide rate of Japanese men is at least two to one higher than that of women.

Matsubayashi Tetsuya, professor of political science at Osaka University and major in social epidemiology, said: “After losing their jobs or wealth, they became more desperate.”

Last year, Dr. Matsubayashi pointed out that in those areas of Japan with the highest unemployment rates, the suicide rate rose the most among women under 40. More than two-thirds of women who commit suicide in 2020 are out of work.

Among women under the age of 40, the suicide rate has risen by nearly 25%, and among teenagers, the number of high school girls who committed suicide doubled last year.

In Ms. Hashimoto’s case, the fear of financial dependence exacerbated her sense of despair.

Even when the gym where she worked as a personal trainer reopened, she didn’t have enough stability to go back and forth. Then, she relied on her boyfriend to feel guilt emotionally and financially.

She met 23-year-old Nozomu Takeda at the gymnasium, a training client in the construction industry. When she said her depression had become unbearable, they only dated for three months.

She said that she couldn’t afford the treatment and suffered from severe anxiety disorders and met other “very depressed people”.

When she tried to commit suicide, all she could think of was to save Takeda from the responsibility of taking care of her. She said: “I want to lighten his burden.”

Even those who are not unemployed may be under greater pressure. Before the pandemic, working from home was extremely rare in Japan. Then, women suddenly had to worry about not only pleasing distant bosses, but also worrying about setting new safety and hygiene procedures for their children, or protecting elderly parents who are more likely to contract the virus.

The expectation of excellence has not changed, but their connections with friends and other support networks have decreased.

Kumiko Nemoto, professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, said: “If they can’t be with other people or share pressure with others, it’s no surprise that they feel stressed or depressed.”

After surviving her suicide attempt, Ms. Hashimoto now wants to help others learn to solve their emotional problems and connect them with professionals.

Mr. Takeda said that he appreciated Ms. Hashimoto’s public talking about her depression. He said: “She is the kind of person who really shares her needs and mistakes.” “So it is easy for me to support her because she will express her needs.”

The couple co-developed an app that they called Bloste (short for “Blowing Steam”) to match the therapist with the person seeking counseling. Ms. Hashimoto is trying to recruit experienced professionals and professionals who are just starting their careers who are more likely to charge young clients affordable fees.

Ultimately, she hopes to receive training as a therapist, with a special focus on women.

Ms. Hashimoto said: “The country is mainly committed to improving women’s professional standards and economic status.” “But I want to emphasize women’s mental health.”

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