COVID Scared Her. But It Was Loneliness That Nearly Killed Her.

Suicide rates in Japan had been steadily falling. Then the pandemic came.
May 31, 2021, 4:33am
suicide, japan, covid, depression, loneliness
Nazuna Hashimoto is one of thousands of Japanese women who struggled with loneliness during the pandemic. Photo: Courtesy of Nazuna Hashimoto

Nazuna Hashimoto feared quiet nights. 

When the glow of city lights dimmed in her neighborhood in Osaka, a drowning sense of loneliness would grip Hashimoto. The reassuring roar of passing cars and babble of human voices ceased to break up the passing minutes. Her heart would palpitate, her breathing shorten, her head start to pound. She’d be whisked away from the living world to the in-between, where death felt more intimate.

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Sometimes these moments of loneliness passed when morning kissed the earth awake. But one afternoon in July, her pain was inescapable. She attempted to end her life.

After the COVID-19 pandemic brought on a year of social distancing, incredible loss, and job insecurity, Japan saw a staggering reversal in suicide trends. While male suicides fell for the 11th year in a row in 2020, female suicides rose by 15 percent from the year before, the first significant increase since 2011. 

Some medical researchers believe that social distancing guidelines, rules that saved lives, triggered another epidemic: one of extreme loneliness. Japan’s constitution prevented sweeping nationwide lockdowns, but many large businesses and schools introduced restrictions on social gatherings to contain the virus.

For a country where suicide was already the leading cause of death among 15- to 39-year-olds, those measures disrupted the support networks many Japanese people had come to rely on. 

Some researchers suggest that financial insecurity and societal stigma are behind the rise in female suicides. Women make up more than half of Japan’s temporary and part-time workforce, and the pandemic has disproportionately impacted their employment. Additionally, women are expected to take on housework and childcare, which only compounds their stress.

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For 21-year-old Hashimoto, who worked part time at a restaurant and a gym, her life was upended by lockdown measures.

When her gym closed for two months at the beginning of the pandemic, she received only a quarter of her regular wages. And when the authorities found clusters of coronavirus cases in gyms in Japan, she began feeling estranged. “People started keeping their distance, because they knew I worked there. They drew a line between us,” she told VICE World News.

This, as well as the sudden halt of human interaction, exacerbated her depression. When she should have been socializing with her co-workers or friends, she was instead seeing only her boyfriend and her mother. She felt stuck, dreading the night silence.

“My mental state was already unstable when the pandemic began. But on top of that, society was experiencing great uncertainty. My symptoms got worse,” she said.

To address concerns over the growing mental health crisis, the Japanese government has appointed a Loneliness Minister, Tetsushi Sakamoto. He’s in charge of an over $55 million budget, all allocated for mental health services. Of this amount, $12 million of these funds are specifically to aid women. 

“As a government, we are providing greater support to nonprofits that are directly assisting women. We are also using social media more as a tool, so that individuals can have easier access to mental health services they need,” Sakamoto told VICE World News. 

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Sakamoto recognized the need for female-specific government aid, now more than ever. 

“Disparities among men and women in Japan existed before the pandemic. Women were tasked with housework, or often worked part-time or temporary jobs. Then after shutdowns, they had to leave their jobs, or were stuck at home looking after their kids. We need to create a society where greater support for women is provided,” he added.

But Hashimoto, an example of whom this government assistance is for, believes Japan lags far behind many countries in mental health treatment. 

“I can only book a therapy session once a month. Ideally, I’d like to go more frequently, but there just aren’t enough hospitals that provide these services. And they don’t extend their hours to meet demand,” she said.

In addition to the lack of hospitals, certain mental health services, such as an appointment with a clinical psychologist, are not covered by Japan’s national health insurance. One session can cost anywhere between $50 to $200, a significant price in Japan, where usually 70 percent of medical expenses are covered by its renowned national health insurance. 

Hashimoto was in disbelief when she was first diagnosed with depression in January 2020.

She recalled being a characteristically happy child, managing to push through obstacles in her childhood. Her parents divorced when she was in the third grade, prompting her older brother to leave and live with his grandparents. Then, she said, she was sexually abused as a child.

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But she said she might have learned to put up the positive facade just as a way to cope with the events around her.

“I held back my feelings. I turned on a switch, so that I couldn’t feel. And I just lived like that. Even when I should be feeling sad, I tried to spin my sadness into a positive thing,” she said. 

“Some people say that’s a good characteristic to have. But it also means that I can’t accept sadness. I was in denial about how I truly felt. This continued for 10 years… I think I reached my limit in January of last year, when I was diagnosed with depression,” she said. 

Hashimoto has not told her mother directly about these experiences, though she’s written about it on her blog and was open to discussing it with VICE World News. She said if it’s not necessary, she feels no need to tell her. 

She recalled the effect her first suicide attempt had on her boyfriend and mother. “I remember their faces when they came to see me in the hospital. It was a mixture of sadness and worry. I’d never seen that expression on her face,” she said. 

“I was thankful I was alive. But it also meant I had to face the actions I took. I tried to die, which means I was running from something, or experiencing stress from living. Surviving my suicide attempt meant I had to face greater stress, carry more baggage.” 

Hashimoto has since tried to address the difficulty she faced in finding mental health resources, through her startup business Bloste, an app that connects counselors to patients. She also hopes that this venture will show her family how much they mean to her. 

“I’m sort of embarrassed to tell them everything. Words are important, but I think I can return their kindness through managing a successful business. I want to show them I’m happy,” she said. 

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.