A Look at Depression and Suicide In Japan
Fri, December 9, 2022

A Look at Depression and Suicide In Japan

Depression is a common mental disorder across the globe, with over 264 million people suffering from it, said the World Health Organization, the UN’s specialized agency on public health. It is different from a person’s usual mood fluctuations and short-lived emotional responses to life’s trials. However, depression may become a serious mental health issue if it’s long-lasting, moderate or severe. Depression can affect an individual’s functionality at work, school, or even in the family.

When depression escalates, it can result in suicide. About 800,000 people die from suicide each year, making it the second leading cause of death in 15 to 29-year-olds. In the US, 17.3 million American adults age 18 and older (7.1%) suffer from major depressive disorder in a given year, mentioned DPSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance), a non-profit organization that provides support groups for people with depression or bipolar disorder.

Unfortunately, between 76% and 85% of individuals in low and middle-income countries receive no treatment for depression even if there known, effective treatments for such mental disorders. Barriers to treatment include a lack of resources, shortage of trained health professionals, inaccurate assessment and social stigma associated with mental health issues.

High Suicide Rates In Japan

While Japan has been struggling with high suicide rates, it also persists across the Asia-Pacific region, said the WHO, cited Yoko Wakatsuki and James Griffiths of American news channel CNN. Within Asia, South Korea’s suicide rate was higher than Japan at 26.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017. Japan’s suicide rate was 18.6 and 3.2 for the Philippines.  

Interestingly, the National Police Agency found that the total number of suicides in Japan decreased to 21,321 in 2017, down from 34, 427 (38% plunge) in 2003, said CNN and Nobuko Kobayashi of Nikkei Asian Review, a flagship publication.

Japan’s Suicide Rates Among the Youth

In 2018, the country saw the worst suicide rate for youths below 20-years-old, citing school-related matters like poor academic performance as the most common reason among young people aged 10 to 19, according to the Japanese government, reported Kyodo News, a news agency company. The rate of suicide per 100,000 people hit 2.8 among individuals below 20, the highest since comparable data was available in 1978. However, the rate of all ages fell to 16.5, the lowest since 1978.

In 2018, no individual below 10-years-old took their own life. Of 568 people aged 10 to 19 who committed suicide with motives identified as written in suicide notes or elsewhere, 188 (33%) mentioned school-related issues, followed by health complications at 119 (21%), and family issues at 116 (20%). Regarding the types of school-related matters, 57 people cited poor academic performance, 46 said they were worried for the future, 27 mentioned conflict with schoolmates. Kyodo News also said depression was the main cause for high school students and older to commit suicide.  

Japanese Teachers Suffer From Chronic Depression Due to Workload

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology discovered that a total of 5,077 teachers suffered from depression in 2018, forcing them to take a break from work, stated Koh Ruide of Japan and Asia news website Sora News 24, via Japan Today, an online newspaper in Tokyo. The figure was 186 more than the past year and was also the highest in four years. Elementary school teachers (2,333) represented the largest group of the 5,077 teachers who took breaks from teaching compared to 1,384 for junior high school teachers.

742 high school teachers and 612 special needs teachers took a depression-related leave of absence, which were significantly less than those of elementary and junior high school instructors. 33% of overworked teachers took respites of six months or less while 13% were burnt out from their jobs to the point that the breaks they took exceeded two years. Worse, 1,023 employees gave up and resigned from teaching due to depression.

Head of the Psychiatry Department at Sanraku Hospital Makane Kaoruko said, “Teachers are currently suffering from chronic depression due to the intense workload required by schools.”

Modern-Type Depression Is Crawling Its Way Into Japanese Workspaces

The majority of mental health professionals in Japan— aside from a few researchers— don’t use the term modern-type depression. It isn’t considered a clinical diagnosis and despite the word “modern,” characteristics of the condition have likely existed along with other forms of depression. Modern-type depression gained prominence in the 1990s when Japanese media used it to describe young workers who take a break from work for mental health reasons as immature and lazy.

What makes modern-type depression different is that patients want to stand up for their right, but they become withdrawn and defiant rather than communicating their desires clearly, coming off as ineffective and immature, said Takahiro Kato, a neuropsychiatry professor at Kyushu University in Japan. Modern-type depression patients are trained to be dependent on their family and social lives.

They are also confused about adapting to an ever-evolving company culture that requires them to be more assertive. Modern-type depression patients are more likely to avoid responsibility and blame others for their unhappiness, Kato noted.

He added, “Modern-type-depression patients are living out the consequences of a nation transitioning from a culture of collectivism, in which they have to accept their rank within a family, to a capitalistic workplace where they have to forge their own path.”

Nevertheless, Japan Needs to do More to Help People With Depression and Slash Suicide Rates

Companies have to act if they want to improve their employees’ mental health. Death from overwork or karoshi must be addressed by reducing work hours and improve the work environment. Bullying and harassment by superiors are the highest among the causes of mental distress at work, comprising 40% or about 200 cases out of 500 mental health cases approved under worker’s compensation insurance schemes in fiscal 2017.

Workspaces must also offer more diversity to enable Japanese employees who worked overseas to readjust accordingly. Efforts to foster diversity is another way to curb depression. Early detection also matters, but stigma about opening up about one’s depression still persists. It’s no surprise that Japan has a low percentage (4.2%) of patients diagnosed with depression, lower than the US (5.9%) and Germany (5.2%), stated WHO. Along with high suicide rates, the figures show that many Japanese suffer in silence. To promote early detection, companies can establish clear policies about consultations and privacy protection to prompt more employees to reach out for help.

Since they are hardwired to stand up to adversity, treatment for depression such as counseling is not common among the Japanese. Fortunately, some progressive employers provide assistance and support for other illnesses. Trading house Itochu, for example, established a program to support its cancer-surviving employees. A similar approach could be applied to depression and other mental illnesses, yielding big gains for companies and helping them maneuver around labor shortages.

Depression is one of the causes of suicide. Given the above-mentioned findings, depression knows no age or occupation. One can suffer from mental health issues due to academic pressure, overwork, and more. Sometimes, depression happens because the person cannot assert their needs properly, a trait commonly seen in modern-depression type patients.

Companies can aid in treating depression. For example, firms can foster a culture of openness by encouraging employees to discuss work-related matters. Depression can happen to anyone and having a support system— from family to co-workers— definitely helps in fighting it.

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