Although the US has a lower suicide rate than Japan today, both nations recognize this phenomenon to be an important problem. Suicides are committed by tens of thousands of people every year. The numbers are connected to the general situation within the nation and are linked to economic, social and cultural factors. Both Japan and the US are trying to reduce their suicide rates through prevention and treatment measures.
1. Suicide Rates in Japan and North America
Japan has long been known to have a relatively low suicide rate: before 1998, it averaged 17 people per 100,000 of population. In 1998, there was a splash to about 27 instead of 17, resulting in about 30,000 deaths a year, four times more than the number of traffic accident victims (“Suicide rate soars in Japan”, 2005). The rate persists at about the same level till today.
In the US, the rates are somewhat lower. In 2000 about 10.6 individuals per 100,000 committed suicide (NIMH, 2005). National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that there are many more people who end in hospital treatment units after failed suicide attempts. Regionally, rates are higher in the West and lower in the East and Midwest (NCIPC, 2005).
2. What causes suicide in Japanese and North American Culture
The reasons of rising suicide rates in Japan are multiple. There is a tendency in the media to attribute the phenomenon to the economic situation in the nation, blaming high unemployment rate. The reality can be more complex. In the first place, the rate is not so devastatingly high. In 2002 Japan with its 5.4% compared favorably with “Italy at 9.4 per cent, France with 8.7, the European Union at 8.3, Germany with 8.2, Canada with 7.7, America at 5.8” (Goerzen, 2003).
Thus, deeper causes should be sought in culture. They can explain, for instance, facts that would boggle foreigners: “suicide pacts between parents and children and suicide as a means of taking responsibility for some misdeed or failure” (“No time to lose on suicide prevention”, 2004). Quite many Japanese tend to view suicide as a way to get rid of the feeling of guilt or inadequacy. The generation of 40-50-year-olds, for instance, tends to commit suicide for reasons connected with professional failures. Perhaps the last group to cherish lifetime employment, they tended to develop an extremely high dependence on their job. Losing it as a result of lay-off, they begin to feel totally worthless. Then, there is, of course a connection with samurai ideals of suicide as a noble and brave way of ending one’s life. Added to this is the fact that in Japan, in the words of psychiatrist Yoshitomo Takahashi, “people resist the idea of treatment for mental distress” (“Suicide rate soars in Japan”, 2005).
For the generation of working men in their 20es or 30es, there is another possible explanation of suicide motives. Many of them are frustrated with their work overload and inability to meet high expectations in the workplace. The same feeling of inadequacy drives them to the tragic decision.
In the US, suicide also seems to be associated with old age and feeling of uselessness. Thus, among men aged 85 and older, suicide rate is five times higher than among other categories: 59 suicides per 100,000 persons (NIMH, 2005). Among other contributing factors researchers cite cocaine use and alcohol abuse, which is currently on the rise. Surely, suicide in the US is affected by cultural factors – thus, someone coming from a culture like the Japanese one that incorporates ideals of noble suicide will be more prone to it. Otherwise, economic inequality and lack of opportunities contribute to suicide rates. High divorce rates observed in the US are another important factor. Lack of opportunity to access psychiatrist for those lacking insurance policies can also contribute to suicide rates. For North American adolescents, “stress, confusion, and depression from situations occurring in their families, schools, and communities” (NCIPC, 2005).
3. Psychological Background of Suicide
Dr. Nishijima, who serves on board of the Japan Medical Association, evaluates the situation from a psychological perspective, explaining persisting suicide rate in Japan. Thus, he emphasizes that against the background of lower dependence on professional success cases of exhaustion depression and promotion triggered depression have declined. On the contrary, “frequent absence from work syndrome, aversion depression, avoidant personality disorder and maladjustment stemming from mental disorders” are on the rise, propping up suicide numbers (Goerzen, 2003).
Interestingly, there is a striking disparity between male and female suicide rates in Japan, with men’s rate exceeding that for women by three times. This happens despite the fact that women are twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression. Yoshitomo Takahashi attributes this fact to women’s superior ability to resist the suicidal impulse (“Suicide rate soars in Japan”, 2005). In the US men die of suicide four times more often than women, although women three times more often attempt killing themselves (NIMH, 2005). The same trend is probably at work in the US, namely, greater female resistance to suicidal impulses. One can assume that many women make fake attempts in order to attract attention.
US scientists state that depression or any other kind of mental disorder is found in 90% of those that attempt suicide (NIMH, 2005). Another explanation is “alterations in neurotransmitters such as serotonin” that is found in post mortem analysis of suicide victims’ brains in lower than usual amounts (NIMH, 2005).
4. Treatment and Prevention of Suicide
Dr. Nishijima suggests urgent measures in Japan in order to raise awareness of the problem and improve recognition. Companies, in the first place, need to recognize extreme levels of stress in their employees and try to counteract them “with programs that allow for channeling stress release in healthier ways” (Goerzen, 2003). Nishijima adds to this the proposal for establishing a network that will connect doctors with psychiatrists for the treatment of those who attempted suicide and speeding up their return to normal routines.
In the US, the need for more active prevention efforts is also recognized. Thus, it is suggested that schools and colleges run programs that will focus more intensely on mental health and opportunities for prevention of suicide by developing skills in coping with stress. At this point, “few schools and communities have suicide prevention plans that include screening, referral, and crisis intervention programs for youth” (NCIPC, 2005). Decline in substance abuse disorders can also be instrumental in bringing down suicide rates, as suicides are often related to substance abuse.
Suicides are a serious problem both in Japan and the US. In Japan, where suicide rate is driven up by both social and cultural factors, countermeasures need to be tied in the first place at the creation of a new social landscape that will discourage suicide and offer alternative ways for crisis resolution. In North America, the problems that lead to suicide are less culture-specific and more tied to universal factors like substance abuse, depression, failures in family life, inadequacy of mental health care. In both cases, strengthening organizational policies aimed at suicide prevention, as well as creating specifically targeted programs, seems a viable response.
Goerzen, M. (2003, April). Suicide: Japan’s Growing Nightmare. Foreigner Japan, 2nd edition. Retrieved December 3, 2005 from http://www.theforeigner-japan.com/archives/200304/news.htm.
National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2005, December 2). Suicide: Fact Sheet. Retrieved December 3, 2005 from http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/factsheets/suifacts.htm.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). (2005, September 9). In Harm’s Way: Suicide in America: A brief overview of suicide statistics and prevention. Retrieved December 3, 2005 from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/harmaway.cfm.
No time to lose on suicide prevention. (2004, December 13). Japan Today. Retrieved December 3, 2005 from http://www.japantoday.com/e/?content=comment&id=689.
Suicide rate soars in Japan. (2005, November 29). Japan Today. Retrieved December 3, 2005 from http://www.japantoday.com/e/?content=kuchikomi&id=383.
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