Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has appointed a “minister of loneliness” to his Cabinet in order to combat the rise of suicide that has taken place in the country due to the pandemic. Earlier this month, Suga reportedly chose Tetsushi Sakamoto to take on the role in addition to his work “combating the nation’s falling birth rate and revitalizing regional economies,” The Japan Times reported.
With isolation connected to lots of social difficulties including suicide, poverty and hikikomori (social recluses), the Cabinet Office also reportedly established a task force that will address the problem of loneliness across different ministries, including by looking into its impact.
The move comes as new numbers were released by Japan’s National Police Agency that showed 20,919 people in Japan committed suicide in 2020. This is an increase from the previous year, making it the “first year-on-year increase in 11 years.” The rise is reportedly largely due to a significant increase in suicides among women and young people.
Suga told Sakamoto at a meeting when he tapped him that “Women are suffering from isolation more (than men are), and the number of suicides is on a rising trend. I hope you will identify problems and promote policy measures comprehensively.”
At a news conference after the meeting, Sakamoto said, “I hope to carry out activities to prevent social loneliness and isolation and to protect ties between people.”
The Prime Minister told the Lower House Budget Committee earlier this month that people from all walks of life, including older people who are at home and university students who cannot attend classes in person, are feeling more and more isolated in the era of COVID-19.
In taking this step, Japan follows the example of the United Kingdom that implemented a similar measure in 2018.
In January 2018, The New York Times reported,
More than nine million people in [Britain] often or always feel lonely, according to a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness.
The issue prompted Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday to appoint a minister for loneliness.
“For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life,” Mrs. May said in a statement.
“I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”
In January 2020, before the pandemic hit the United States resulting in intense lockdowns and a pause on normal life, a survey showed that more than three in five Americans were lonely. A report by Cigna claimed that “loneliness is at epidemic levels in America.” Since then, mental health has been a focus of many in the United States and around the world as the coronavirus pandemic took a toll on the mental stability of many people.
Last August, the CDC reported on the effect of the pandemic on mental health. The findings showed that during late June 2020, 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use, 31% reported anxiety/depression symptoms, and 11% seriously considered suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day: 800-273-8255 or you can visit their website here.