Japan has seen a rise in the number of people taking their own lives in recent months as anxieties brought on by the coronavirus pandemic take an emotional and psychological toll.

The trend is believed to have been exacerbated by the apparent suicides of celebrities and has had mental experts scrambling to respond.

Counselors of Tokyo Mental Health Square give consultations to clients via private social media chats in Tokyo on Nov. 28, 2020. (Kyodo)

Yasuyuki Shimizu, representative director of the Japan Suicide Countermeasures Promotion Center, warned that the risk of suicide has been growing in Japan, especially for women, and his concern is borne out by the figures.

Suicides by women began to rise in June from a year earlier and in November marked the sixth straight month of increase, logging an 88.6 percent jump in October, according to provisional National Police Agency data compiled on Dec. 16. The total number of suicides from July to November also rose from a year earlier.

"The anxieties or problems women tend to face have likely worsened during the pandemic," Shimizu said, with factors such as mental illness, financial and employment difficulties, child-rearing and domestic violence contributing to the female suicide rates.

"These days, it is not unusual for women to be the primary breadwinners in their households, even though many of them remain in nonpermanent positions. If they are laid off or their contracts are not renewed, it affects not only them but whole families," he said.

Professional counselors have also been drawing a link between the pandemic and the increased risk of suicide.

Nonprofit organization Tokyo Mental Health Square near Ikebukuro Station has been providing consultations via private messaging, telephone and face-to-face meetings, among others.

Counselors pay close attention to particular signs provided by clients in assessing their risk level. These include whether they express a firm intent to kill themselves rather than a vague desire, indicate a method, such as hanging, or specify a place and date, according to Katsuyoshi Shingyouchi, head of the organization's counseling center.

If counselors judge a client to be at high risk of suicide, they report the case to police, who request telecommunications companies to disclose personal information about the individual, said Shingyouchi.

"I was talking with my staff around August that there might be something going on, as the number of cases we were reporting to police was rising," he said.

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The following month, the center saw a spike in the number of people accessing its social media consultation service after the death of a popular actress Yuko Takeuchi in an apparent suicide, with daily queries jumping from around 200 to around 1,800 shortly after her death.

The death of Takeuchi, 40, in late September and that of actor Haruma Miura, 30, in July are among the cases reported in Japan of celebrities appearing to take their own lives during the pandemic.

"Those who were barely hanging on under the stress of the pandemic may have let themselves go, possibly nudged by apparent suicides by well-known actors and news reports about them," JSCP's Shimizu said.

The number of suicides in Japan declined annually in the 10 years through 2019. However, the accumulated figure from January to November this year reached 19,225, inching closer to the 2019 total of 20,169, the police data showed.

Deeply concerned by the trend, Shimizu said the government should consider relaxing eligibility requirements for welfare payments to help people overcome hardships brought on by the pandemic.

Yasuyuki Shimizu, representative director of the Japan Suicide Countermeasures Promotion Center, gives an interview in Tokyo on Dec. 9, 2020. (Kyodo)

Information about the welfare system also needs to be publicized more aggressively so that people in need understand how the system can help them, said Shimizu, whose work includes advising a group of lawmakers tasked with preventing suicide.

"If people are ruled ineligible for emergency relief or other support measures, they should not get the impression that their lives are finished. As a last resort, there are always welfare payments," he said, stressing that welfare is not charity but a public system that all eligible individuals are entitled to use.

"Now more than ever is the time for this public system to be fully utilized," he said.

Regarding the influence of media reports on apparent celebrity suicides, Shimizu said major media outlets appear to have become more cautious in how they report, in line with World Health Organization guidelines. But there is still room for improvement when it comes to the kinds of stories that populate the internet and social media, he said.

"It's crucial to develop a system that prevents sensational reports from continuously spreading," he said.

The WHO's suicide prevention resource for media professionals states they should take particular care in reporting suicides involving celebrities who are often revered by the community and likely to influence the behavior of vulnerable individuals.

"Reports should not glamorize the suicide, should not describe the method in detail, and should comment on its impact on others," it says, adding that information about where to seek help should be included in any story about suicide.

Emergency service in Japan: 119

If you are having suicidal thoughts, help is available.

For Japan, call Yorisoi Hotline at 0120279338 (toll-free). Press 2 after the recorded message for consultation in English, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai, Vietnamese, Nepali, or Indonesian. The service in these languages is also available on Facebook messenger.

For those outside Japan, you can find a list of other resources here