Japan to Introduce Online Mental Health Checks to Prevent Child Suicide

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Children use digital devices at a municipal elementary school in Osaka in December 2021.

The government is to introduce online mental health checks for children to help identify those at risk of committing suicide.

Under the plan, elementary, junior high and high school students will undergo checkups, using digital devices provided to them for educational and other purposes. With the number of suicides among children in Japan at an all-time high, the government aims to detect early warning signs to prevent further loss of life.

The policy was included in new measures against suicide among children compiled by the government on Friday. Some local governments, including Niigata Prefecture, have adopted a mental health checkup system developed by the private sector that has proved successful in the early detection of suicidal thoughts among youngsters.

The national government aims to introduce the system across the nation from next fiscal year by providing municipalities with financial support. Until now, local governments have had trouble meeting related costs.

It is thought that many children find it difficult to seek help from others when mentally distressed. As part of the government’s mental health checks, children will be asked if they feel depressed or whether they have ever self-injured, and the risk of suicide will be determined based on each individual’s answers.

School nurses and others will hold detailed interviews with children determined to be at high risk of taking their own life. Information obtained through such procedures will be shared with teachers and others and used to draw up support measures.

The Children and Families Agency believes teams comprising specialists, including psychiatrists and lawyers, can support schools in such efforts. Such teams will analyze specific cases and provide advice to schools. In serious cases, teams will seek counseling from medical institutions.

In 2019, Nagano Prefecture established the first such team in the nation, which to date has helped some 34 junior high and high school students, none of whom went on to commit suicide.

The national government aims to combine the team system with its online medical health checks to cut the number of suicides among young people.

Privacy issue

To realize the new measures, the issue of personal data-handling must be addressed. If relevant information is not shared with specialists, it will not be possible to fashion appropriate solutions. However, without consent from the individuals concerned, the Personal Information Protection Law could be violated.

The government is thus considering the creation of guidelines that would allow personal information to be shared in certain cases.

Suicides among elementary, junior high and high school students hit a record-high of 514 in 2022 — the first time for the figure to exceed 500 since 1980, when statistics began to be compiled.

Some 499 children committed suicide in 2020, up 100 from the previous year. This high figure is believed to be partly due to the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted school and family life.