Min Ku is the Kansai outreach coordinator for TELL, a nonprofit organization which provides mental health services to the international community in Japan.
COVID-19 is not the only plague tormenting people at the moment. The modern plague of cyberbullying is thought to have contributed to the recent death of Hana Kimura, a professional wrestler and cast member of the reality show "Terrace House", produced by Fuji Television and distributed by Netflix. She had received many hostile or abusive online messages about her behavior on the show.
Her death at age 22, a presumed suicide, is a grim reminder that too many young people are struggling in silence. This is all the more tragic because suicide is preventable.
The Japanese government has now hinted that it might take action against online abuse, which is laudable -- but it is not enough. Japan must confront the toxic effects of cyberbullying by paying attention to another aspect of this tragedy: poor mental health and the behavior, online and off, which contributes to it.
The bullying culture in Japan is so pervasive that school closures and telecommuting because of the pandemic have given rise to jokes about the unexpected benefits of staying at home -- a reprieve from school and workplace bullying. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is triggering the harassment of doctors and nurses, which jeopardizes everyone's medical care.
Traditional bullying can be harmful, but using digital devices, or cyberbullying, is insidious. Cyberbullying can happen easily at any time, anonymously, and has a long afterlife as messages remain online.
Young people are vulnerable as their identities are still developing and they might not know how to cope. Feeling that nobody cares can be devastating. Victims of cyberbullying who are left unsupported can develop unhealthy coping strategies that can lead to self-harm, further isolation and even suicide. Suicide is the top cause of death for Japan's 15-39 year olds, the only Group of Seven country for which this true. It is thus crucial to reach out and offer help.
In Japan, people with mental health distress have traditionally been seen as weak, not trying hard enough or, at the other extreme, dangerous. Nor are there sufficient resources or policies: national health insurance reimburses for psychiatric treatment, but not for counseling. You can get medication from a psychiatrist during a rushed 10-minute consultation, but no counseling or opportunity to learn how to manage strong emotions, resolve conflicts or other coping strategies.
Japan has only just started to develop a national registration and licensing system for therapists, and people do not know that the current best practice is a combination of medication and counseling as the most effective way to support mental health.
Research shows that bullying affects the victim, the perpetrator -- who may have untreated mental health issues -- and also bystanders. TELL has long campaigned against bullying by giving workshops, holding charity events and encouraging young people to help each other, such as in the "Stand Up, Don't Stand By" anti-bullying video contest for middle and high school students. Bystanders can be either part of the problem or an important part of the solution.
This is not merely a question of individual anguish. Mental health issues are public health and economic issues too.
The most precious resource of any society is its people and their physical and mental health. Before COVID-19, millions of workdays per year were lost to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. Productivity losses in Japan due to depression cost more than $14 billion. The cost of depression-related presenteeism -- working while unwell -- is $8.3 billion.
The bottom line is that a mentally healthy workforce is more likely to be productive and creative. Timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment of mental health conditions are a win-win solution for employees and employers.
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have consequences for mental health too, which makes addressing them all the more urgent. We are in the unprecedented situation of almost everyone in the world facing these consequences. Millions of people are experiencing firsthand the suffering of serious disease or the fear of infection. Physical health can influence mental health and vice versa.
Millions more now know the shock of sudden unemployment, financial insecurity, anxiety about the future, and grief and loneliness from losing loved ones and being socially isolated. Mental health is everybody's business.
Even though so far Japan is relatively unscathed from COVID-19, people may well experience anxiety about resuming normal activities. There are worries about returning to workplaces and schools; about increased social interaction; and about how people will cope with transitioning to a post-pandemic world.
Honestly addressing society's anxiety, and proactively supporting mental health care will help Japan to recover from the pandemic and thrive economically.
Mental health conditions, including serious mental illnesses, are treatable and manageable. Suicide is preventable. We can combat hopelessness and despair. We need to spread the message that "You are not alone," shatter stigma around mental health issues by bold and honest public discussion and encourage people to seek help.
Hana Kimura's premature, tragic death comes at a time when we are all more susceptible to mental health consequences from a long-term global pandemic. We are grieving but we can also try to learn and grow.
Any of Japan's international residents with concerns about mental health can contact TELL through telljp.com, on its Lifeline at 03-5774-0992, for counseling at 03-4550-1146 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.