A Japanese mother committed suicide in her Tokyo apartment last month after testing positive for the coronavirus. The woman in her 30s was asymptomatic and felt guilty that she may have infected her daughter and husband. “It is inexcusable that I have become a nuisance,” her final note said, according to local media.
In 2020, Japan recorded a jump in suicides for the first time in 11 years as the pandemic hit. The problem was particularly pronounced among women. The government and private groups are searching for ways to assist people at risk after years of success in cutting down suicide rates.
Suicide has long been a problem in Japan, largely due to overwork and social loneliness, also referred to as “hikikomori.” Following efforts from the government and private groups to offer support groups and counseling, increase public awareness, collect more data, and create hotlines, suicide rates declined steadily for ten straight years starting in 2009.
But the pandemic has exacerbated some of the old triggers, particularly among women. In Tokyo, about 1 in 5 women live alone. Researchers said the pandemic increased pressure on working mothers and housewives, and cases of domestic violence have been on the rise.
While more men commited suicide, 2020 saw a spike among women. Police data released in January confirmed 20,919 suicides in the past year, an increase of 750 from 2019. In October alone, security officials reported 2,199 suicides, the highest monthly total in more than five years. Male suicides tallied at 13,943—a 1 percent decrease. Suicides among women increased by 14.5 percent to 6,976.
“The thing about the coronavirus pandemic is the industries hit most are industries staffed by women, such as tourism and retail and the food industries,” professor Michiko Ueda, a leading expert on suicide, told the BBC.
Monthly suicide rates initially dipped by 14 percent between February and June, according to researchers at the Hong Kong University and Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology. That corresponded with increased government subsidies, reduced working hours, and school closures, the study said. But the numbers rose the rest of the year as the pandemic dragged on and shutdowns hit harder.
This month, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed Tetsushi Sakamoto as the minister of loneliness and asked him to develop a comprehensive strategy to respond to rising suicides. “I hope to promote activities that prevent loneliness and social isolation and protect the ties between people,” Sakamoto told reporters after his appointment.
But some aren’t waiting for the government to respond. Koki Ozora, a 21-year-old student, started a mental health chat service in March last year called Anata no Ibasho, or A Place for You. More than 600 volunteers from different countries now answer more than 200 messages a day, mostly from women. Many clients express concern about losing their jobs, raising their children, and facing domestic violence, Ozora told CNN. But he said he was moved by the number of volunteers who have turned out online to help. “This really gives me hope,” he said. “They tell me they just had to do something.”