Hidden struggles: the surprising mental health crisis among Japan’s youth

Posted on Posted in Health

The youth in Japan has been experiencing mental health struggles due to academic pressure, social norms, bullying, and a lack of independence. Moreover, Japan also faces a concerning trend with increasing suicide rates among those under 20. Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health in Japan and a cultural reluctance to seek help only exacerbate the problem. 

Shining a light on the mental health struggles of Japanese youth

In Japan, children are generally encouraged to excel in school, but the resulting pressure is taking a toll on their emotional well-being. Despite having a below-average poverty rate and one of the strongest economies in the world, Japanese children suffer from low self-confidence, with education experts attributing this to bullying and intense competition to enter college. 

Many children lack independence because their parents discourage them from engaging in playful activities due to academic pressure to perform well in school. For example, in Japan, parents often accompany their 18-year-old children to college due to concerns about safety and well-being. This might be one of the reasons why 90% of 15-year-old children in the Netherlands rated their life satisfaction as 6 out of 10 or higher, while only 62% of Japanese children scored similarly (Hori T, 2022).

Like many other developed countries and high-income societies, Japan has also experienced social withdrawal among its youth. The term ‘hikikomori’ is used to describe individuals who prioritize virtual worlds over real life and remain confined to their homes for prolonged periods. Psychologists believe that youth social withdrawal is often linked to insecure attachment, which suggests that these youths may not have felt secure during their early years. While parental support is essential for a secure attachment, excessive protection can limit children’s autonomy.

This problem has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the whole world in 2020. Additionally, a 2021 UNICEF report based on OECD data, analyzing factors that impact child well-being in wealthy countries, shows that Japanese children are among the least confident in making friends, with only Chilean children ranking worse (Kyodo News, 2020), Therefore, it is essential to provide early intervention and support to youth who have experienced insecure attachment, as it can help prevent and address social withdrawal (Li MH T et al., 2015).

Uncovering specific data about mental health issue trends

In the above-mentioned report by UNICEF and OECD titled ‘Worlds of Influence: Understanding What Shapes Child Well-being in Rich Countries’, Japanese children were ranked first among 38 countries for physical health but placed 37th for mental well-being. Moreover, according to a UNESCO survey from 2020, 40% of Japanese were not happy with their lives (Hori T, 2022). 

Additionally, according to the Global Youth Wellbeing Index, a tool that measures and compares the well-being of young people across different countries, the Japanese youth doesn’t believe their standard of living will be better than that of their parents. Despite Japan‘s top ranking in safety and security indicators related to youth well-being, 35% of children fear experiencing harassment, violence, or bullying at school or work (International Youth Foundation, n.d.). 

The country is facing a concerning trend, with the number of suicides by those under 20 being the highest since 2000, according to Nippon (2020). As per the 2020 suicide prevention white paper from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare, children’s problems related to school, health, and family were the main contributing factors to this trend. 

Similar to South Korea, the number of suicides by those under 20 has been increasing, based on data from the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare in 2015 (Nippon, 2022). In Japan, teenagers are often viewed as passive and unresponsive to the burdensome social norms they face. Children are also burdened with an excessive amount of homework from an early age, as it is a major element of their education.

The continuing stigma around mental health in Japan

Traditionally, Japan has had low reported rates of mental illness, but some experts suggest that this may be due to cultural factors that discourage seeking help for emotional issues. Mental illness is often seen as a sign of weakness in Japanese culture, and individuals with neurological disorders may be perceived as lacking willpower rather than suffering from a diagnosable condition. 

As a result, many cases of mental illness go unnoticed and unreported, with families often failing to seek professional help due to the stigma surrounding mental health. To reduce this stigma, some psychologists have begun renaming mental health disorders to more neutral terms, such as “loss of coordination disorder,” which may help reduce negative associations and encourage more people to seek help for their mental health concerns (Kirk E, 2021).

Despite some proposed solutions, the government has on occasion also failed to protect children whose parents struggle to provide for them, often resulting in inadequate care at children’s homes. Moreover, the lack of communication and transparency about their situation can have a lasting impact on these children, especially in a society where open discussion about personal and emotional matters is not commonly encouraged (Kim C.R., 2019).

Preventative measures for supporting youth’s mental health

To help support the youth, Japanese psychologists recommend making mental health services more accessible to parents and children to combat behavioral health concerns. They propose promoting socialization and support among individuals and proactively offering help. The goal is to increase mental health literacy among both youth and elderly populations and to include mental health education in schools. Parents are also encouraged to seek professional help as a lack of knowledge can worsen family situations (Sammouri N, 2022).

In 2003, to help tackle this issue, the government also launched a national maternal and child health campaign to support youth with mental health issues and increase fertility rates. They stress the significance of early detection through frequent and thorough check-ups and encourage parental participation by establishing group activities for families to socialize. Institutions are encouraged to collaborate transparently to provide children with more opportunities to explore the world. Additionally, they also provided free telephone counseling to prevent abuse and support vulnerable members of society (Fujisaki K, 2003).

The declining birth rates in Japan have been a persistent issue, and the impact of childhood struggles is felt throughout society. Lawmakers recognize the urgency of addressing the demographic crisis, as time is running out. However, Japan is not alone in facing challenges in addressing and supporting children to realize their full potential, as many countries are also grappling with similar issues. 

To empower children and improve society, our methodology has been successfully implemented in several projects in Rwanda and India with the help of life coaches, psychologists, leadership graduates, and therapists. If you are interested in supporting our cause, please consider donating, sponsoring a child, or volunteering with us.

Written by Lidija Misic


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