Written by Motoko Rich and Hikari Hida
Shortly after Japan stepped up its fight against the coronavirus last spring, Nazuna Hashimoto began to experience 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 get smaller.”
In July, 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 break down the stigma associated with talking 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 1 in 5 women live alone, and urges to stay home and avoid visiting family have exacerbated feelings of isolation. Other women grappled with the deep disparities in the division of household chores and childcare in 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 suicide rates. the highest in the world. (While more men than women committed suicide last year, fewer men did so than in 2019. Overall, suicides increased just under 4%.)
The situation has reinforced the long-standing challenges for Japan. Talking about mental health issues or asking for help is still difficult in a society that emphasizes stoicism.
The pandemic has also amplified tensions in a culture built on social cohesion and which relies 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 need to look after the health of their families, they need 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 their 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. Ueda found in surveys 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’,” Ueda said. “And if you have mental health issues, you’re not one of us.”
Experts also fear that a succession of Japanese film and television stars who committed suicide last year has sparked a spate of copier suicides. After Yuko Takeuchi, a popular and award-winning actress, committed suicide at the end of September, the number of women committing suicide the following month jumped nearly 90% from the previous year.
Shortly after Takeuchi’s death, 30-year-old Nao began writing a blog recounting his lifelong battles 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 think about 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.
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 stalls, 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 consultant job to undergo psychiatric treatment, she remembers feeling insecure, no longer able 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 found a job four days a week 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, especially after the housing bubble burst in the 1990s and the global recession in 2008.
During these times, it was men who were 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 2-1.
In Hashimoto’s case, fears of financial dependence contributed to his 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 other people who “felt really pushed into a corner.”
When she tried to kill herself, all she could think of was to release Takeda from the responsibility of taking care of herself. “I wanted to take the burden off him,” she said.
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 of excellence 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 his own suicide attempt, Hashimoto now wants to help others learn to talk about their emotional issues and connect them with professionals.
Takeda says he appreciates the way Hashimoto talks openly about his depression. “She’s the kind of person who really shares what she needs and what is wrong,” he says. “So it was very easy for me to support her because she expresses what she needs.”
Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from indianexpress.com