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Japan appoints a Minister of Loneliness to combat isolation and loneliness amid rising suicides

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For many years in Japan, getting psychological help was stigmatized, but when suicides hit a peak of 34,427 in 2003, alarmed policymakers drew up a comprehensive prevention program launched in 2007. Through a joint effort between government and corporate efforts that included identifying at-risk groups, capping over time, and making it easier to get counseling, suicides had decreased to just over 20,000 in 2019, before the coronavirus struck.

However, following a report that showed an increase in suicides during 2020 following a decade of declines, with the number of women and young people committing suicide rising.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appointed regional revitalization minister Tetsushi Sakamoto on Friday as a part-time minister of loneliness to address and combat the issue of loneliness and isolation, which has increased during the pandemic.

Sakamoto is also in charge of promoting the dynamic engagement of all citizens and measures for the declining birthrate.

According to the new data, the female suicide rate increased by 14.5 percent, with the total number reaching 6,976, the highest in five years, while male suicides dropped 1 percent to 13,943 for the 11th straight year.

Suga said told Sakamoto: “Women are suffering from isolation more (than men), and the number of suicides is on a rising trend. I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively.”

The prime minister will hold an emergency forum in late February to listen to experts and discuss support measures “to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people.”

Researchers say women in Japan tend to work in the service and retail sectors, so they are more susceptible to the loss of employment during the pandemic. Women also usually carry more duties in housework and childcare. The pandemic forced them to spend more time at home. The financial and emotional challenges are taking their toll on women and young people more.

The suicide rate trended lower in the first half of 2020, but from July onward the numbers began to rise as the impact of the coronavirus outbreak was felt.

October was the worst month as suicides totaled 2,153 for the highest monthly total in over five years. The number of suicides by women, at 851, rose 82.6 percent when compared with the same month in 2019.

Tetsushi Sakamoto will coordinate with multiple agencies that address issues including suicide prevention, elderly care, and child poverty, in an attempt to create a strategy to combat the issue.

Japan isn’t the first country to assign a minister to tackle issues surrounding loneliness. Responding to a report that found that millions of Britons suffered from loneliness, the British government in 2018 expanded the responsibilities of the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, formally changing the position to Minister for Sport, Civil Society, and Loneliness.

As an immediate response to the data, an official of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry told reporters that in addition to supporting the economy and daily life, the Japanese government “will expand consultation services and introduce support organizations to people in need.”

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