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Japan suicide rate increases amid COVID-19 pandemic after decade of decline

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The rate of suicide has increased in Japan for the first time in over a decade last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan’s health and welfare ministry said on Friday.

Japan’s health and welfare ministry said on Friday that 20,919 people died by suicide in 2020 according to preliminary data, up 3.7 per cent from the previous year.

That compares with 3,460 deaths from COVID-19 in the same period.

It marks the first year-on-year rise in suicides in more than a decade, with women and children in particular taking their lives at higher rates.

Japan has long had the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven advanced countries, though regionally South Korea registers higher figures.

But the government has worked in recent years to better support people with mental health needs.

Japan has seen a smaller COVID-19 outbreak than some countries, avoiding the harsh lockdown measures put in place elsewhere, and a fall in suicides during the first half of 2020 raised hopes that the pandemic’s impact might be limited.

But the figures began to rise in July after a first state of emergency was lifted in May, a pattern experts say tracks with data showing suicides often drop in the first phase of crises such as conflicts and natural disasters, before rising sharply.

“The coronavirus pandemic forced people into unusual circumstances,” a health ministry official told AFP.

“In particular, problems experienced by women have been highlighted, which are thought to have led to suicides.”

“For suicide in Japan, the rise was a major event and I think it was a big turning point,” said Michiko Ueda, an associate professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo who studies suicide in Japan.

“The coronavirus is definitely a major factor,” she told AFP, warning “we cannot deny the possibility that figures will rise again this year”.

Mental health experts around the world have warned that suicides could rise during the pandemic, driven by diverse factors including economic hardship, stress and family abuse.

In Japan, the rise is the first since 2009, in the wake of the global economic crisis, but it follows a different pattern from previous years.

Suicides among men actually fell slightly from 2019, but over 14 percent more suicides were recorded among women.

While determining the causes of rising suicides is complicated, Ueda said likely factors included increasing unemployment for women and extra burdens at home, in a country where household responsibilities are often unevenly shared in families.

The pandemic disproportionately hit industries that employ many women, often on temporary contracts, including hospitality and hotels.

A survey released by public broadcaster NHK in December found 26 per cent of female workers reported employment problems including layoffs since April, compared with 19 per cent of men.


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