Japan Suicide Rates Reveal COVID-19’s Mental Health Toll

Monthly suicide rates in Japan declined by 14 percent during COVID-19’s first five months, but later increased by 16 percent during the pandemic’s second wave.

AsianScientist (Jan. 19, 2021) – In a wide-ranging study covering the entire Japanese population, researchers found that suicide rates among women, children and adolescents surged during COVID-19’s second wave. Their results were published in Nature Human Behaviour.

While COVID-19’s varied list of symptoms (or even lack thereof) is well-documented, the disease’s psychological toll has received less attention. Referred to as a ‘hidden epidemic,’ mental health issues have spiked during the pandemic—likely due to anxiety caused by the threat of catching COVID-19 as well as loneliness resulting from social distancing measures.

To investigate COVID-19’s impact on mental health, Dr. Shohei Okamoto from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology and Mr. Takanao Tanaka from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology examined changes in Japan’s suicide rates before and after the pandemic’s onset.

The researchers analyzed city-level data covering the entire Japanese population—more than 120 million people—from November 2016 to October 2020. They found that monthly suicide rates dwindled by 14 percent during the pandemic’s first five months, covering a period of February to June 2020.

Suicides among adults saw the greatest decline during Japan’s state of emergency from March to April 2020, in both women (27 percent) and men (21 percent). This decline was likely linked to lower economic stress resulting from the provision of government subsidies along with reduced working hours and commuting time, leading to improved quality of life and mental health. Likewise, the closure of schools during the first wave may have lessened COVID-19’s mental toll on children and adolescents.

In contrast, during the pandemic’s second wave from July to October 2020, monthly suicide rates grew by 16 percent overall, with a respective increase of 37 percent and 49 percent observed among females and adolescents. Meanwhile, suicide mortality rates increased by only about 7 percent in Japanese males.

Considering that the suicide rate among males in Japan is typically 2.3 times higher compared to females, their findings represent a marked difference from historical suicide patterns. Across both waves of the pandemic, suicides among married and unemployed women also increased. These results are consistent with recent studies that show the outsized impact of COVID-19 on industries dominated by women, as well as the greater burden of stay-at-home orders on mothers.

In summary, the pandemic may have disproportionately affected the mental health of women, children and adolescents. Suicide prevention strategies should therefore consider the factors that may have contributed to reduced suicide rates during the first wave, with these strategies tailored towards specific population groups.

“Our results offer a number of important insights on suicide mortality during the pandemic that may be relevant even after normal life resumes,” wrote the paper’s authors. “Overall suicide trends must be monitored, so that immediate policy responses can be considered.”

The article can be found at: Tanaka & Okamoto (2021) Increase in Suicide Following an Initial Decline During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Japan.


Source: Nature; Photo: Shutterstock.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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