It was reported this week that suicides among Japanese youths has reached a 30-year high water mark. While Japan is not alone among nations displaying the most extreme symptoms of a widespread deficit of mental health, its three-decade peak, which may not prove to be a peak at all, makes it the epicenter for a trend in youth suicides that spans the globe.
Making the matter even more confounding is the reality that the overall trend in suicide in Japan has declined over the past 15 years. The determination that the subset of youths are trending in the opposite direction of the nation’s declining overall suicide rate arises from the number of suicides through March of this year, a figure that outpaces 2017. According to Japan Today, 250 children in elementary, middle, and high school killed themselves between January 1st and March 30th of 2018. Last year, 245 youths in the same age range took their own lives during that span, while the previous high, 268 students, was set in 1986.
It’s also important to consider that the number of young people in Japan today is far fewer than in 1986, with a demographic crisis resulting in far more elderly relative to the number of young. This means that the problem is actually far worse today than the statistics indicate.
This disturbing trend begs an obvious question: why are youth suicides in Japan back on the rise?
A cross-section of the reasons for suicide reveal something of a mixed bag, and leaves much to uncertainty. According to Japan Today, ‘out of the 250 cases, 33 children were reported to have had concerns about their future, 31 had family problems, 10 were bullied, while 140 were unknown.’
The aforementioned Japanese demographic crisis is probably one reason why uncertainty about the future, on both individual and national levels, is abundant. Also referred to as a fertility crisis, the rapidly aging population has not been counterbalanced by youths getting busy and having children to offset the costs of said aging population. The result: a ‘demographic time bomb’ that the Japanese are well aware of; yet, the young people seem unwilling to bite the bullet, find a partner, and have babies.
This has created a national climate in which individuals are both increasingly isolated individually and increasingly likely to be unable to face the cost of caring for the elderly in the not-so-distant future. This is a combination that is undeniably depressing, and therefore detrimental to mental health. The government’s efforts to incentivize child rearing, while understandable and necessary, have likely created even more pressure on an already mentally-paralyzed youth population.
But there are other factors that may be contributing to the rise in youth suicide. As the statistics show, family issues and bullying are two self-explanatory reasons why a child or teen might ultimately succumb to their worst impulses. But the alternate reasons are myriad, and they aren’t limited to Japan. Though the island nation in the Pacific catches headlines and poses its own unique issues to youth mental health, it best serves as a harbinger of the greater, global rise in youth suicides, at least among developed nations.
The rise of depression in youth is rampant. The Centers for Disease Control cites suicide as the third leading cause of death in young people between the ages of 10 and 24 in the U.S., accounting for approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. In Canada, it is the second leading cause of death among that age range. According to a CDC survey, an astounding 16% of U.S. students reported seriously considering suicide, with an even more shocking figure – 8% of respondents – having reported attempting to take their lives in 12 months preceding the survey. 157,000 youth between ages 10 and 24 are treated for self-inflicted injuries each year, and that’s only in the United States.
The risk factors for suicide are no longer representative of outliers in society. As mental health becomes increasingly frayed, and technology’s constant stimulation continues to destroy what little sense of peace can still be found in modern society, the risk factors for suicide have seemingly come to describe the majority of the population. In particular, ‘history of depression [and] other mental health issues’ leap out as factors that serve as a common thread through the majority of young people today.
The effects of young minds being constantly bombarded with stimuli, often fear-based in nature, have been devastating. Social isolation caused by the proliferation of formerly untraditional communication technologies – texting, social media, etc. – have intensified feelings of loneliness, depreciated self-worth, and created a means of near-constant bullying. The mobile devices that have put forms of face-to-face social interaction on the back burner have also created a new form of very real addiction to the likes of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, messaging services, YouTube, etc. The near-constant need to check these devices, and the bright screens on the devices themselves have disrupted sleep patterns, and this chronic lack of sleep has only contributed further to feelings of depression and anxiety.
These new realities have manifested themselves as a profound deficit of mental wellness. ‘Major depression’ is on the rise in adolescents. Because depression and anxiety can be difficult to identify, they often goes undiagnosed. But studies, and the statistics, show us that latent depression is very much on the rise in young people, and likely strongly correlated to the uptick in youth suicide.
‘For teenagers aged 12 to 17, ‘cases of major depression climbed from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.3% in 2014 – a 37% increase. The spike in depression was even more prominent in teenage girls: “In relative terms, [the climb] represents a 31 per cent [increase] in girls.”’ (Global News)
Sadly, Japan is not a singular phenomenon when it comes to a rise in teen suicides. The developed world has presented a number of challenges to mental wellness that have proven disproportionately detrimental to young minds. While overall suicide rates are trending downward, the young population is experiencing a rise. To consider the causes of these self-inflicted deaths is to consider how fundamentally our societies and worlds have changed, and not for the better.
Pondering such realities may also lead many to a bleak conclusion: even if we talk to children, limit their use of technology, encourage a break from the factors that are decimating mental wellness, can it possibly be enough to counteract destructive forces that have become such indelible aspects of modern society? When five-year-olds are taking their own lives, it is tough to argue the optimistic side of the debate. Which may mean that the increased trend in adolescent suicide is, unfortunately, a new normal.