Support working women to prevent suicide amid pressures of pandemic

The prolonged coronavirus pandemic has had serious impacts on working women. Society as a whole needs to create an environment in which people are ready to support such women who are facing anxiety.

It was found that about 1,700 working women committed suicide last year, up 30% from the average for the five years up to 2019.

Overall, 21,081 people committed suicide in 2020, the first increase in 11 years since 2009, the year after the collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers triggered a financial crisis. While the number of men who killed themselves decreased in 2020, the figure for women rose 15%.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry analyzed the causes and compiled its findings in a white paper on measures against suicide. According to the analysis, the number of unemployed women who committed suicide last year decreased slightly compared to the five-year average, but the figure increased among working women, especially among office workers, sales clerks, and medical and health care workers.

Half of working women are non-regular employees. The ministry believes that the rise in the number of suicides among working women was triggered partly because employment conditions worsened for them as the pandemic hit the restaurant and other service industries particularly hard.

The pandemic probably made it even more difficult for many working women to see any prospects for improving already unstable lives. The employment situation remains uncertain. Measures should be strengthened to prevent a further increase in the number of suicides, keeping an eye on the impact of the pandemic on their lives.

When it comes to reasons for killing themselves — to the extent indicated by suicide notes and other clues — there was a drastic increase in the number of cases in which human relationships in the workplace or changes in the employment environment are believed to have played a part, according to the white paper. Greater burdens have probably been placed on women as they faced an increasing amount of duties or unwanted transfers, among other changes.

It has also been pointed out that the temporary closure of schools and the spread of telecommuting amid the pandemic has caused women to shoulder even greater burdens in childcare and household chores, thus driving them to feel more stressed. It is believed that many women feel isolated, with no one to talk to about their worries.

Prefectural governments and other entities have set up “Kokoro no Kenko Sodan Toitsu Dial” (One-stop hotline for mental health), a service featuring one common telephone number (0570-064-556). Calls made from anywhere in the country are forwarded to nearby public institutions.

Some nonprofit organizations use social media and other channels to encourage people to talk about their worries. The government should support such activities and work to create a society in which it is easier for people to ask for help when they are in need. It is important to establish a system in which people can talk to someone even on holidays, at night or at any other time.

The government reportedly plans to include support measures for people in trouble amid the pandemic in an economic stimulus package to be compiled later this month, with the provision of cash benefits as a pillar. The government should also provide continuous support to help people strengthen the foundation of their livelihoods, through such measures as expanding vocational training programs.

Quite a few people feel hesitant to apply for public assistance programs — regarded as the “last safety net” — out of concern over persistent prejudice against those who use the system. The welfare ministry has urged the public to seek advice on applying for such programs, as it says people have the right to do so. Local governments are urged to listen attentively to people in need and handle their cases appropriately.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Nov. 7, 2021.