Suicide spike in Japan shows mental health toll of COVID-19

Japan Times -- Oct 12
The number of suicides rose in Japan in August due to more women and school-aged children taking their own lives — offering a first glimpse into the consequences of the mental health strain brought about by COVID-19 around the globe.

Japan is among a few major economies that releases timely data on suicides as it is a persistent societal issue. The numbers hint at what may be going on around the world as countries grapple with the fallout from mass unemployment and social isolation that’s impacting certain groups of people more than the rest.

Sociologists have long warned that the economic and social disruption wrought by measures to contain the coronavirus could cause more deaths than the pathogen itself. In Japan, the suicide rate has been falling but it remains a top cause of premature deaths — this year, suicide has taken over 13,000 lives, while total COVID-19 fatalities number less than 2,000.

According to government statistics, the number of suicides in August increased by 15.4 percent to 1,854. Although making up a smaller proportion of suicides, the number of women taking their own lives jumped by around 40 percent. The number of suicides by students in elementary to high school more than doubled to 59 from the same period last year.

The mental health toll looks set to be one of the pandemic’s most insidious legacies given the difficulty of grasping or measuring the magnitude of self-inflicted harm until it is too late. Major economies like the U.S. and China don’t report official data on suicides until years later, though experts have predicted a wave of such deaths this year while anecdotal evidence abounds on social media platforms.

“Up-to-date suicide numbers can help quickly determine which groups are at high-risk,” said Yasuyuki Sawada, the chief economist at Asian Development Bank and a University of Tokyo professor who has written books on suicide prevention and the phenomenon’s economic impact. “If local governments can determine which age group or what occupations are showing higher risks for suicides, suicide prevention measures can be implemented swiftly.”

A U.S. study released in May predicted as many as 75,000 additional people could die in the next decade from “deaths of despair” as a result of the coronavirus crisis, a term that refers to suicides and deaths related to substance abuse. In India, 65 percent of therapists reported an increase in self-harm and suicide ideation among patients since the pandemic began, according to a study released in September by the Suicide Prevention India Foundation.

Not only has the coronavirus caused unemployment to rise around the globe, it’s upended social norms and halted community interaction, key factors known to worsen mental health strain. Over 60 percent of 130 countries surveyed by the World Health Organization said mental health services for vulnerable populations were disrupted as a result of the pandemic, according to a report released this week. The trend in Japan reveals that the pandemic’s also adding new, potentially deadly stressors: calls to domestic violence helplines have risen as families remain trapped at home together.

Economically, the coronavirus has disproportionately affected women, who are more likely to be in irregular employment in retail or service industries — they made up nearly 66 percent of recent job losses in Japan.

- Japan Times