Although Japan is known for having an above-average suicide rate, according to TELL Lifeline director Vickie Skorji the main cause is the same around the world: “The number one reason behind all suicides whether in Japan or any other country is a mental health problem – typically a mood disorder such as depression.”
TELL has been active in Japan since 1973, and this year partners up with one of Tokyo’s most iconic landmarks for a one-of-a-kind endurance test to mark World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. In the run-up to the TELL Tokyo Tower Climb, we ask Skorji for more insight into why the numbers are so high in Japan, the latest statistics, and what is being done to create awareness in the country.
Why do you think the suicide rate is so high in Japan?
In Japan, mental illness is still seen as a weakness or failure on the individual’s behalf. This stigma creates the biggest barrier to people discussing their problems or accessing services leaving many exhausted and feeling that they are a burden to everyone, that there is no future or way out, making suicide a very real option. We would never say to a person with cancer or diabetes snap out of it or you are weak, but we expect the person with a mental illness to get better on their own every day.
“Last year, 21,897 lives were lost to suicide”
Has there been any significant change in the rate over the last few years? If so, why?
In 2016, 21,897 lives were lost to suicide. Thankfully this represents significantly decreased numbers since 2003 when the number peaked around 34,000. Since 2007 the Japanese government has taken numerous steps and actions to attack this problem, from research into risk factors and vulnerable populations, to providing financial support, rural programs and services for the elderly, increasing after-care following suicide attempts in some regions and more recently programs addressing bullying and LGBTQ issues with youths.
However, this is not a number to be celebrated. This number represents 59 lives lost every day – increasingly young lives. We all need to be striving for a zero-suicide rate, as every life matters.
What are some of the main issues people talk about when they call the TELL Lifeline?
On the Lifeline, loneliness, anxiety, work related issues and depression were the most common issues people called about in 2016.
Do you think the issues that Japanese people face are different to those faced by people in other parts of the world?
Not really, these are the same key issues people call Lifelines about globally. However, access to services, adequate mental health care services, long work hours, lack of services for minority groups, discussions about workplace stress, school bullying or the ability to talk openly about your feelings or topics such as LGBTQ compound these issues in Japan.
“Over the last two years the Lifeline has seen around an eight to 10% increase in the number of calls answered”
Have you seen an increase in the number of people calling the Lifeline recently? If so, why do you think that is?
Yes, over the last two years the Lifeline has seen around an eight to 10% increase in the number of calls answered and despite having nearly 100% shift coverage, we have seen a 20% increase in calls to our answering machine when the line is closed.
Over the last two years we have opened a call center in Kansai and we are making more noise in areas outside the Kanto region trying to let people all over Japan know that there is help, support and people who care.
Do you think the Japanese government is doing enough to try and create awareness and prevent suicide?
The Japanese government has developed some great programs, research and strategies over the past few years, but there is still a long way to go particularly with anti stigma or awareness campaigns around mental illness and direct services to support those with living with mental health problems.
What else needs to change or happen in order for the suicide rate to decrease in Japan?
Mental illness often first appears in adolescence or childhood and affects one in four people. This means we all know someone who is struggling. Saving lives and striving for zero suicides is something that requires everyone’s involvement and at all levels from businesses, the community, schools, and the individual. As a parent, teacher, friend, family member or colleague, we all need to know the warning signs, how to talk to someone you are concerned about, how to support them and where to access services. Effective communication about mental illness in our schools, workplaces, universities, and homes is essential in breaking down the myths and stigma that prevent people accessing support, treatment, and recovering.
Tell us about the TELL Tokyo Tower Climb, happening on September 10.
World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD) is held each year on September 10. It is an annual awareness raising event organised by International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). This year’s theme “Take a minute, Change a life” is about connecting with others and letting people know that #itsokaytotalk.
To mark this occasion and raise important awareness of this topic, TELL is excited to be holding our first ever Tokyo Tower Climb on WSPD. Join us, and others all over the world in making a big noise about suicide prevention at one of Tokyo’s most iconic structures. Up to 500 people can take part in the event either individually or as a corporate team. Whether you take part by yourself, or form a team, every step you take will be helping to raise important funds to help the TELL Lifeline operate 24/7.
Could you tell us about any other projects that TELL is involved in with the aim of suicide prevention and awareness?
For our fourth year, TELL will hold our Talkie Walkie walks all over Japan on WSPD (September 10), talking to people, gathering signatures of support, and handing out information about suicide prevention and support in Japan. You can join one of our existing walks or hold your own walk and help TELL in raising awareness about suicide prevention. I will be coordinating the Tokyo walk from Meiji-Jingumae Station (exit 2) on Sunday afternoon starting at 3pm. We will walk through the park and into Shibuya handing out suicide prevention cards and gathering signatures. If you are in the Tokyo area and free on the afternoon of September 10, please sign up to join us.
One our most exciting projects for this year is the launch of our overnight live chat service. On the evening before WSPD, TELL will launch a new overnight chat support service to help people who may be struggling throughout the night when our Lifeline is closed. This service will initially be offered on Saturday nights, with a goal to cover every night over the next few years.
For more information about the TELL Tokyo Tower Climb and how to sign up, click here.
TELL Counseling offers a range of counseling options. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can reach out to the TELL Lifeline on 03 5477 0992. For more information on the services and how you can receive or provide support, visit telljp.com. The next training program will start on October 1, 2017 and they are currently seeking applicants.