Japan Braces for Post-Quake Surge in Suicides

As Japan struggles to get back to its feet following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, public health officials are worried that the ongoing emotional trauma will lead to another disaster: a surge in suicides.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the nation already had one of the world’s highest suicide rates, and authorities worry that the stress and feelings of hopelessness will make matters worse.

With 27,000 dead or missing, authorities are preparing for, and attempting to prevent, an onslaught of suicides. They have opened hotlines, increased funding for therapy for survivors of the disaster, and sent suicide counselors into some of the hardest-hit areas. Still, reports of suicides related to the disaster are growing.

“I feel sorry for these people in the same way I do for those who died in the tsunami,” Naoko Sugimoto, the leader of the national suicide support group Izoku Shien, told the Times. “But they didn’t die in the tsunami; they died afterward. They took their own lives. And that makes you ask yourself, ‘What could we have done?'”

Sugimoto points to emotionally devastated survivors, as well as stressed-out government responders, as the people most at risk.

Previous scandals and disasters also have led to increases in suicides. A 1995 earthquake in Kobe, which killed 6,400 people, precipitated a rise in suicide rates across the country, including the deputy mayor of the city government, who set himself on fire on the first anniversary of the temblor.

Other incidents, from the 1997 Asian financial crisis to political scandals, also have provoked waves of self-inflicted deaths. Suicide is the leading cause of death among Japanese men ages 20 to 44, and among women 15 to 34.

Experts say that suicide does not carry the same negative stigma in Japan that it does in the U.S. “There’s something like 11 different cultural classifications for suicide in Japan; for the most part, there remains some sympathy for the act,” said Gaithri Fernando, an assistant professor of psychology at Cal State Los Angeles and a specialist on the interaction of culture and reaction to trauma.

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