TOKYO – Shortly after Japan stepped up its fight against the coronavirus last spring, Nazuna Hashimoto began to suffer from panic attacks. The Osaka gymnasium where she worked as a personal trainer suspended her operations, and her friends were staying at home on the recommendation of the government.
Afraid of being alone, she called her boyfriend of just a few months and asked him to come. Even then, she was sometimes unable to stop crying. Her depression, which had been diagnosed earlier in the year, escalated. “The world I lived in was already small,” she says. “But I felt him getting smaller.”
In July, Ms. Hashimoto saw no way out and attempted to kill herself. Her boyfriend found her, called an ambulance, and saved her life. She is speaking publicly about her experience now because she wants to eliminate the stigma associated with speaking out about mental health in Japan.
While the pandemic has been difficult for many in Japan, the pressures have increased for women. As in many countries, more women have lost their jobs. In Tokyo, the country’s largest metropolis, around one in five women live alone, and urges to stay home and avoid visiting family have exacerbated feelings of isolation. Other women struggled with the deep disparities in the division of household chores and childcare during the days of homework, or suffered from an increase in domestic violence and sexual assault.
The growing psychological and physical toll of the pandemic has been accompanied by a worrying spike in suicides among women. In Japan, 6,976 women committed suicide last year, almost 15% more than in 2019. This was the first year-over-year increase in more than a decade.
Each suicide – and suicide attempt – represents an individual tragedy rooted in a complex constellation of reasons. But the increase in women, which spanned seven consecutive months last year, has concerned government officials and mental health experts who have worked to reduce what had been one of the world’s highest suicide rates. highest in the world. (While more men than women committed suicide last year, fewer men did so than in 2019. Overall, suicides increased by just under 4%.)
The situation has reinforced the long-standing challenges for Japan. Talking about mental health issues or seeking help is still difficult in a society that emphasizes stoicism.
The pandemic has also amplified tensions in a culture built on social cohesion and relying on peer pressure to foster compliance with government demands to wear masks and practice good hygiene. Women, who are often referred to as primary caregivers, sometimes fear public humiliation if they fail to follow these measures or become infected with the coronavirus.
“Women bear the burden of preventing viruses,” said Yuki Nishimura, director of the Japan Association of Mental Health Services. “Women have to look after the health of their families, they have to look after cleanliness and can be looked down upon if they don’t do things right.”
In a widely publicized account, a woman in her 30s who was recovering from the coronavirus at home committed suicide. Japanese media seized her note to express anguish over the possibility that she infected others and caused them trouble, while experts questioned whether shame could drive her to despair.
“Unfortunately, the current trend is to blame the victim,” said Michiko Ueda, associate professor of political science at Waseda University in Tokyo who has researched suicide. Dr Ueda found in polls last year that 40% of respondents worried about social pressure if they contract the virus.
“We don’t fundamentally support you if you are not ‘one of us’,” said Dr Ueda. “And if you have mental health issues, you are not one of us.”
Experts also fear that a succession of Japanese film and television stars who committed suicide last year may have sparked a spate of copier suicides. After Yuko Takeuchi, a popular and award-winning actress, committed suicide in late September, the number of women committing suicide the following month jumped nearly 90% from the previous year.
Shortly after Ms. Takeuchi’s death, Nao, 30, began writing a blog to recount her lifelong struggles with depression and eating disorders. She wrote candidly about her suicide attempt three years earlier.
Such openness to mental health issues is still relatively rare in Japan. The celebrity suicides prompted Nao, whose last name was withheld at her request to protect her privacy, to reflect on how she might have reacted had she reached her emotional nadir during the pandemic.
“When you’re home alone you feel very isolated from society and that feeling is really painful,” she says. “Just imagining if I was in this situation right now, I think the suicide attempt would have happened much sooner, and I probably think I would have succeeded.
Writing about her challenges, Nao, who is now married, said she wanted to help others who might feel hopeless, especially at a time when so many are being held captive by friends and colleagues.
“Knowing that someone has been through or is going through a situation similar to you – and knowing that someone is looking for professional help for it and that it has really helped – would encourage people to do a similar thing,” Nao said. , who said she wanted to help remove taboos associated with mental illness in Japan.
Nao’s husband could see how she struggled with the long working hours and brutal office culture at the consulting firm where they first met. Then, when she quit, she felt adrift.
During the pandemic, women suffered disproportionate job losses. They made up the bulk of employees in industries most affected by infection control measures, including restaurants, bars and hotels.
About half of all working women have part-time or contract jobs, and when business stagnates, companies cut these employees off first. In the first nine months of last year, 1.44 million of these workers lost their jobs, more than half of whom were women.
Although Nao voluntarily quit her job as a consultant to undergo psychiatric treatment, she remembers feeling anxious about insecurity, unable to pay her rent. When she and her then-fiancé decided to speed up their wedding plans, her father accused her of being selfish.
“I just felt like I had lost everything,” she recalls.
These feelings, she said, triggered the depression that led to her suicide attempt. After spending some time in a mental hospital and continuing to take medication, her self-confidence improved. She has found a four-day-a-week job in the digital operation of a magazine group and is now able to handle the workload.
In the past, suicide rates in Japan have skyrocketed during times of economic crisis, including after the housing bubble burst in the 1990s and the global recession in 2008.
During these periods, men were the most affected by job losses and who committed suicide at higher rates. Historically, male suicides in Japan have outnumbered female suicides by a factor of at least two to one.
“They became more desperate after losing their jobs or their fortunes,” said Testuya Matsubayashi, a political science professor at Osaka University specializing in social epidemiology.
Last year, Dr Matsubayashi noted that in Japanese prefectures with the highest unemployment rates, suicides among women under 40 have increased the most. More than two-thirds of women who committed suicide in 2020 were unemployed.
Among women under 40, suicides have increased by almost 25%, and among teenage girls, the number of high school girls committing suicide has doubled last year.
In Ms. Hashimoto’s case, fears of financial dependence contributed to her feeling of hopelessness.
Even when the gym where she worked as a personal trainer reopened, she didn’t feel emotionally stable enough to return. She then felt guilty for relying on her boyfriend, emotionally and financially.
She had met Nozomu Takeda, 23, who works in the construction industry, at the gym, where he was her workout client. They had only been dating for three months when she said her depression was getting unbearable.
Unable to afford therapy and suffering from severe anxiety attacks, she said she identified with others who “felt very pushed into a corner.”
When she attempted suicide, all she could think of was to release Mr. Takeda from the responsibility of taking care of her. “I wanted to take the burden off him,” she says.
Even those who have not lost their jobs may have experienced additional stress. Before the pandemic, working from home was extremely rare in Japan. Then women suddenly had to worry about not only pleasing their bosses from afar, but also juggling new safety and hygiene protocols for their children, or protecting elderly parents who were more vulnerable to the virus.
Expectations to excel have not changed, but their contacts with friends and other support networks have diminished.
“If they can’t get together with other people or share their stress with other people, then it’s not really surprising” that they feel pressured or depressed, said Kumiko Nemoto, professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
Having survived her own suicide attempt, Ms. Hashimoto now wants to help others learn to talk about their emotional issues and connect them with professionals.
Mr. Takeda says he appreciates the way Ms. Hashimoto speaks openly about her depression. “She’s the kind of person who really shares what she needs and what’s wrong,” he says. “So it was very easy for me to support her because she expresses what she needs.”
Together, the couple developed an app, which they call Bloste (short for “blow off steam”), to match therapists with those seeking advice. Ms. Hashimoto tries to recruit both seasoned professionals and those early in their careers, who are more likely to charge affordable rates for younger clients.
Finally, she would like to train herself as a therapist, with a special focus on women.
“The country has mainly focused on advancing women up the career ladder and their economic well-being,” Ms. Hashimoto said. “But I would like to highlight the mental health of women.”