TOKYO — Suicides by young people in Japan rose to their highest level in three decades in 2017, according to new figures released by the government.
Japan has a persistent suicide problem, although the number of suicides has been declining over all. But child suicides have risen recently, with experts pointing to school pressures and bullying as likely triggers.
A total of 250 children in elementary, middle and high schools committed suicide last year, the highest number since 1986, according to data released last month by the Education Ministry.
According to the Education Ministry survey of schools, most of the students who committed suicide did not leave any explanation for why they decided to take their own lives. Of those who did, the most frequently cited reason was worries over what path to take after graduation. Other reasons included family problems and bullying.
A separate survey by Japan’s Cabinet Office in 2015 found that suicides among children tended to spike on Sept. 1, speculating that students felt school pressures more intensely after the summer break. According to the Welfare Ministry, suicide was the leading cause of death among 15-19 year olds in 2017.
Although child suicide is not a problem unique to Japan, mental illness is still not an open topic of discussion and it is difficult for children and teenagers who suffer from depression or anxiety to seek help.
“In Japan, your biggest problem is that there is a greater stigma about mental health problems than in other countries,” said Vickie Skorji, director of the crisis hotline at TELL, a counseling and crisis intervention service in Tokyo. “You’re most likely to get bullied, and less likely to get support services and understanding from your parents.”
Some experts say that children do not receive as much support from family as they might have in the past. While several generations of a family used to live together, such arrangements are less common now.
“I think support networks for children have been weakening,” said Yoshitomo Takahashi, a professor and psychiatrist at Tsukuba University. “Now, we cannot expect the same thing from families that we used to expect. We can’t expect parents or grandparents to provide the support they used to. And in this situation, children remain alone.”
Experts say that schools are generally not well equipped to cope with mental illness among students and, in general, education about mental illness is lacking. “Teachers are busy and they cannot respond to each individual student in many cases,” said Yuki Kubota, professor of clinical psychology at Kyushu Sangyo University.
Over the summer, a junior high school in Aomori, in northern Japan, admitted that bullying provoked the 2016 suicide of a 13-year-old girl, Rima Kasai. In a report about the suicide, the school said that it had relied on individual teachers to respond to the bullying but that the situation “reached its limit as no organized action was taken.”