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In Japan, back-to-back tragedies renew calls for boosting neglected mental health resources and education

Mourners pray in front of offerings, near a building where a fire broke out, in Osaka, Japan, on Dec. 19. (AP)

TOKYO — A pair of high-profile tragedies in Japan over the weekend — a deadly arson attack and the suicide of a pop star — have highlighted growing concerns about the country’s mental health crisis, which experts say has been exacerbated by isolation and anxiety during the pandemic.

The back-to-back news stories renewed calls for more resources and education on mental health needs in Japan, which has seen a rise in suicides among youths and women amid the covid crisis.

On Friday, a patient at a psychiatric clinic in Osaka, in western Japan, was accused of setting a fire while a counseling session was in progress, killing 24 people and leaving three, including himself, in critical condition. It was one of the deadliest arson attacks in Japan in the past 20 years.

One day after the attack, Japanese actress and singer Sayaka Kanda died in an apparent suicide in Sapporo, in northern Japan. The 35-year-old became famous as the voice of Anna in the Japanese version of Disney’s “Frozen” and was playing the lead role in the musical “My Fair Lady” in Sapporo.

“Support for mental health education and mental health patients in Japan is very behind compared to Western countries,” said Masako Kageyama, a mental health expert at Osaka University.

Tied down and locked away: Harrowing tales emerge from Japan’s psychiatric patients

Kageyama said the lack of understanding and support stems from the overdependence on institutionalization of those with mental health needs, even as many other countries moved toward community-based mental health care and the use of new therapies rather than hospitalization. This has contributed to a societal taboo against seeking help and further isolation of those who need care, she said.

“Without enough community support, there is still fundamentally a strong societal prejudice that makes it difficult to accept people with mental health struggles,” Kageyama said.

Mental health advocates jumped to action after the weekend’s incidents, seeking to counter backlash against the suspected arsonist and prevent a rash of other suicides.

One nonprofit, Anata no Ibasho (A Place for You), sent messages on social media asking news outlets to refrain from detailed reports of the apparent suicide and asking people to seek help.

“For those who are feeling distressed seeing the media reports about the celebrity, please quickly turn away from online and TV reports. We are available as always 24 hours. Please do not hesitate and reach out,” the organization tweeted.

And in response to the arson attack, it urged against generalizing about those seeking mental health support: “We are seeing some backlash towards people who have mental health issues, but anyone can have mental health issues, and they are not ‘crazy people.’ ”

Suicide rates among women and young people have increased notably in Japan and neighboring South Korea since 2020, suggesting the pandemic has taken a greater toll on those populations.

Even before the pandemic, the leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 39 was suicide, making Japan unique among the wealthy Group of Seven countries, according to a Health Ministry white paper published last month. In 2020, 21,081 people died by suicide, a 4.5 percent increase since 2019, the paper found.

Suicides among women, particularly those with part-time jobs, increased in 2020 and were higher than the average number for women in the five years leading up to the pandemic, compared with 11 years of decline in suicides among men, according to the ministry’s research.

Japan and South Korea see surge of suicides among young women, raising new questions about pandemic stress

Jun Tachibana, a representative of the nonprofit Bond Project, which focuses on suicide prevention for young women, warned about the increasing isolation, anxiety and depression fueled by pandemic restrictions and called for families and friends to reach out to one another, especially because high-profile celebrity suicides can fuel despair.

“When an influential figure passes away, the shock and sadness it brings to fans is tremendous,” she said. “What we can do is to constantly be careful to observe any changes in the people around us, and reach out before it is too late.”

Friday’s attack on the Nishi Umeda Clinic for the Mind and Body in downtown Osaka was the latest in a series of arsons in recent months that have rattled the country. At the time of the attack, the clinic was holding a weekly session to help those who were seeking to return to work after taking sick leave to receive mental health care.

Police identified the suspect as 61-year-old Morio Tanimoto. According to witnesses, a man walked into the clinic with a paper bag, placed it next to a heater and kicked it, spilling out liquid that caught fire.

In October, a knife-wielding man dressed as the comic book villain Joker rampaged through a Tokyo Metro train, setting fire in a subway car and injuring at least 17 passengers.

In November, a man was arrested on suspicion of attempted arson on a bullet train in Kyushu, in southern Japan. According to local reports, the suspect in the Kyushu attack said he wanted to imitate the October attack.

In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), and the Crisis Text Line is available at 741741. In Japan, the Health Ministry website has contacts for people to find support by phone or online, and the TELL Lifeline provides free and anonymous counseling for English speakers at 03-5774-0992. In South Korea, the Korea Suicide Prevention Center operates a 24-hour hotline at 1393.

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