Mental health issues are a persistent, pressing concern and have aggravated into a much bigger issue since the pandemic paralyzed the society. Social distancing protocols, job losses and other restrictions have put a halt to our normal social life making it all the more difficult to fight feelings of hopelessness in these trying times. On 12th February, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan appointed minister Tetsushi Sakamoto as the minister for loneliness, a newly created role, to tackle the recent rise in the number of suicides and the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on mental health.
Previous statistics and research suggest that the country had pre-existing high levels of social isolation, ascribed to the long working hours. According to Nikkei, the number of suicide cases in Japan jumped by 3.7 percent in 2020 to a total of 20,919 deaths. Based on a recent report by The Japan Times, this is more than three times the number of people who died from Covid-19 in Japan in the same year. According to the National Police Agency, the number of deaths increased by 750 deaths compared to 2019, and the first time the figure escalated from the previous year in 11 years.
The government also set up a task force which aims to investigate and solve the possible causes of loneliness and other possible mental health deteriorations that led to the increase in the number of suicides.
Before the effects of the pandemic, Japan had consistently ranked poorly in social isolation studies. In 2015, an international research study found that 16.1 percent of Japanese people over 60 felt they had “nobody” to turn to for help, followed by the US (13 per cent) and Sweden (10.8 per cent).
The coronavirus crisis appears to have aggravated this already existing issue. With the world being confined to the boundaries of their homes and remote work and restrictions on gathering remaining in place in some capacity for the foreseeable future, it’s increasingly difficult to be hopeful. Moreover, as young people, while we wait as patiently as we can, we’re watching life experiences slip past us again and again and again. For those who already struggle with mental health, the loneliness of lockdown isolation is becoming an unbearable burden for many. What we call social distancing is not social distancing at all but physical distancing. Our lives remain online, reinforcing the strain of fomo and feeling as though you are being left behind and unloved, yet the real connection of speaking to someone and enjoying a wholly human experience is not an option for an unknowable time ahead.
You are not alone in feeling alone, and Japan has taken this issue to the forefront by appointing a minister of the state to address the matter of loneliness. As humans we need and crave connection, and we can hope that our governments and institutions will approach the concern of loneliness with the same gravity and earnestness.