Social media eyed to stop youth suicides in Japan

opinion May 17, 2018 01:00

By The Japan News

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Thirty per cent of prefectures, ordinance-designated cities and prefectural capitals in Japan are using or plan to use social media to counsel young people and others who are contemplating suicide, a Yomiuri Shimbun survey has found.

In response to the murder of nine people in Zama, Kanagawa Prefecture, municipalities are rapidly expanding their use of social media, which is widely used by young people. 

However, many municipalities say they lack the know-how or personnel to carry out such programmes. 

In October, the bodies of nine people were discovered in an apartment in Zama. Police arrested Takahiro Shiraishi, 27, on suspicion of carrying out the murders and other crimes. He is said to have used Twitter to contact female high school students and other victims who had posted about suicide. 

Social media consultations are conducted either through the communication app Line or services such as Twitter and Facebook. 

The survey responses showed that 31 local governments – 22 prefectures and nine cities – are planning this kind of programme. Only five local governments – Tokyo, Nagano and Okayama prefectures and the cities of Aomori and Otsu – have had such programmes since last fiscal year.

Consultations over social media could help to connect people to in-person or telephone aid provided by local administrative entities and schools, meaning that programmes run by local municipalities could be highly beneficial.

Yet 67 municipalities said they had “no plans” to launch such programmes. Many cited particular issues with social media that differ from conventional consultation methods.

“We need to find personnel who have knowledge about the way children write and are familiar with popular words,” a Fukui city government official said. 

While government statistics show that suicides have been declining nationwide, minors are the only age group that have not shown a decrease. Last year, 567 children committed suicide, up 47 from the previous year. 

After the incident in Zama, the government began improving its social media consultations, and in March a private organisation contracted by the Health, Welfare and Labour Ministry launched a consultation programme. 

“However, many municipalities are holding back out of fear of being criticised should a person who consulted with them end up committing suicide,” said Hajime Sueki, an associate professor of psychology at Wako University. “To continuously provide anti-suicide measures, it’s important to improve knowledge and secure personnel through trial and error.”

Help at hand

Accidents are the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 34 in the United States and Europe, but suicide is the leading cause for the same age bracket in Japan.

Last year, Facebook began displaying a message inquiring “Can we help?” when users inputted search terms including such words as “suicide” on its social network. 

Twitter freezes users’ accounts if their posts encourage suicide. It also displays a message advising users to seek help if their search terms included words related to suicide. Yahoo Japan and Google display the phone number for a consultation service if users perform searches that include such phrases as “I want to die”.