As Japan’s schools reopened on Friday after summer holidays, celebrities reached out to children attempting to kill themselves and a Tokyo zoo offered refuge to nervous pupils in a bid to tackle the mental health crisis.
For some children, the thought of returning to school sends their stress levels soaring, as they battle fears ranging from schoolyard bullies to doing poorly on exams.
“Going back to school creates anxiety,” said Kuniyasu Hiraiwa, representative director of AfterSchool, a non-profit that helps parents detect early warning signs in kids.
Japan, which places huge emphasis on academic success – has the highest suicide rate among the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised nations, with more than 20,000 people taking their own lives annually.
While the overall suicide rate has been falling since it peaked in 2003,that is not the case among young adults starting their first jobs or schoolchildren.
About 500 Japanese under 20 years of age kill themselves each year. The teen suicide rate on Sep 1 tends to be around three times higher than any other day of the year.
This week, popular actress Shoko Nakagawa posted the message “Never die. Live” on Twitter, while public broadcaster NHK created the hashtag “On the night of Aug 31st” to draw attention to the problem.
Singer YuYu Horun, who said he tried to kill himself in primary school, now reaches out to adolescents who feel alienated at home.
“I receive daily emails or letters from teenagers who express the urge to kill themselves or have already made attempts,” he said. “Many children do not feel love from parents who often do not give it because they did not get it themselves. In many families, communication is insufficient.”
Some libraries are urging frightened children to take refuge behind their doors, while Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo said at-risk students should be allowed to skip the first day of school.
Tweeting a picture of its tapirs, the zoo said scared kids can run away without asking for permission – just like the animals when they are confronted with danger.
“If there’s no place to escape, come to the zoo,” it tweeted.
Authorities have increased their vigilance, urging schools to be alert for danger signs among students, while the government set up a 24-hour telephone counseling service that children or their parents can call for assistance.
“I urge them to talk to someone, family, school teachers, friends or anyone – about their problems,” education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Friday. “If it’s hard to talk to people around them, I want them to consult with the education ministry’s service.”
Experts say much more needs to be done to engage adolescents and pre-teens so they do not fall victim to suicides.
“The proportion is not high, but teen suicide should not be looked at from a statistical point of view, it should be treated as a social issue,” said Yutaka Motohashi, director of the government-affiliated Japan Support Center for Suicide Countermeasures.
“Children need to be taught how to cope with everyday stress and have a trusted adult to talk to when they have a problem.”
Even recently graduated students are at risk as they enter the workforce for the first time.
There is huge pressure among Japanese graduates to get a job with a top company and do well, failing at your first position is seen as life-changing in the ultra-competitive society.
“In Japan, for social and cultural reasons, it is difficult to give up a job to go and look for another” if the first one is too hard, Motohashi said.
Whatever the age, there are usually warnings signs among suicidal people, especially in the age of social media.
“They do searches with keywords like ‘I want to die’ or ‘a gentle death’, before they attempt suicide,” singer Horun said. “They send various SOS messages which unfortunately often go unnoticed by others. They have trouble asking for help.”