At a time when suicide rates remain high among young people in Japan, some college students are coming together to learn what they can do to detect the telltale signs of a friend in trouble and become suicide prevention guardians.

The painful experiences young people sometimes go through that may lead to suicide, the methods of dealing with trauma and the support that can be provided to a person to help give them reasons to live are among the subjects taught at the Nara University psychology department in western Japan.

Sociology professor Jin Ota, 68, teaches the seminar to the students out of a sense of urgency, realizing that many young people have lost the meaning and value of their lives. Some of the topics he discusses include cyberbullying and truancy among young children.

A seminar on preventing suicide among young people is held at the Department of Psychology at Nara University in Nara Prefecture, western Japan, on Nov. 20, 2023. (Kyodo)

"We would like to have a breakthrough in the current situation by educating young people who can save others from despair," Ota said as he explained the purpose behind the course.

In a recent lecture, Ota explained that although "there are people who say they 'wish to die,' what they're really doing is sending out an SOS that 'I'm in so much pain, I want to die. But I really want to live,'" he said.

Ota spoke about a case where one of his students was able to recognize a warning sign in a coworker and successfully provided the person with necessary support in a crisis.

According to data from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, suicide has remained the leading cause of death in Japan among 15-39-year-olds for at least the past decade (2013-2022). The number of elementary, junior high, and high school students who took their own lives rose to 514 in 2022, the highest on record.

Photo taken on Nov. 20, 2023 shows professor Shin Ota speaking at a seminar in the Department of Psychology at Nara University in Nara Prefecture, western Japan. (Kyodo)

The most common causes and motives for suicide among those in their 20s were health and work issues, as well as economic problems involving making a living.

Ota came to have a stronger sense of urgency after finding in his survey, conducted in September 2022, that roughly half of the 557 students polled from several universities, including his own, considered themselves "worthless" or "replaceable anytime."

The results led him to give greater priority to teaching his students how to tackle issues of suicide among young people.

Some of his students empathize with young people who want to take their own lives, including those who have gone through their own struggles.

A third-year female student, who is 21, said, "I can understand being overwhelmed by that feeling of wanting to kill yourself from time to time."

She was sexually abused when she was a junior high school student, but because she was unable to acknowledge the emotional turmoil the experience caused her, she began self-harming, a practice that went on for some time.

But through meetings with counselors and others, she decided she wanted to get involved in a profession that healed emotional wounds and enrolled in the department of psychology at Nara University. She said through learning about the emotional wounds of other young people, she has found relief from her own emotional trauma.

Photo taken on Nov. 20, 2023 shows professor Shin Ota speaking at a seminar in the Department of Psychology at Nara University in Nara Prefecture, western Japan. (Kyodo)

When she would confide in trusted friends about her wish to take her own life, she was often told, "Don't say things like that." Their reactions only strengthened her feelings of despair, and she would tell herself that she was "living in a different world from others."

She recalled that she wanted her friends to ask her what was wrong as a way of getting closer to her, instead of admonishing her. She now feels strongly that many young people have had similar experiences of carrying around their unresolved pain.

Japan's suicide rate among young people is among the highest of the Group of Seven industrialized nations, and countermeasures are urgently needed, experts say.

According to Ota, there are many cases -- even among young people of the same generation -- where people dismiss revelations about a friend's wish to die as silly or not worth discussing.

To deal with such cases, Ota recommends people instead take a pause and find out why a friend is suffering. "One word of encouragement can save someone's life," he stressed.

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

Related coverage:

FEATURE: Okinawan Spam soul food sandwich on a roll worldwide

FEATURE: 1,000-km nature trek helping Tohoku once again hit its stride

FEATURE:Support helps lift spirits of foreigners in quake-hit central Japan