As graduation ceremonies get under way at schools across Japan this month, 1,029 students will not be graduating — not this year, not ever. That is the number of students who committed suicide last year, according to statistics released by the National Police Agency earlier this month. Though, overall, the number of suicides declined by 3.3 percent last year, suicides by students increased by nearly 11 percent.
Those figures include 529 university students and 269 high school students, and an unspecified number of other students. The numbers are just part of the total number of people who commit suicide in Japan every year. The total has remained over 30,000 suicides a year for the last 14 consecutive years.
From suicide notes and other evidence, some of the reasons students committed suicide were evident: 140 committed suicide due to academic underachievement and 136 did so because of worries about their future after school. The reasons for others, unfortunately, are more difficult to discern. School issues accounted for 429 cases, an average of over one suicide per day.
It is important to remember that suicides should not be counted simply in numbers. Each case is a distinct tragedy with its own causes and consequences.
Still, schools and government officials in charge of education would do well to start the process of understanding the suffering and confusion that pushes students to take their own lives.
It is difficult for schools to take the entire burden for improving the situation, but it is at schools that most students exhibit signs of problems they are facing. Programs to educate students about mental health and greater awareness by educators are first steps. In recent years, most schools in Japan have improved their counseling centers and increased referrals to mental health professionals. More government funding of help centers and programs is imperative.
Mental health issues need to be a greater part of what schools teach. That does not mean interfering in students' private lives; it does mean being more active in helping students find help when they need it.
Students can be educated about issues common to young people so that they understand that their difficulties are common to that period of life and nothing to be embarrassed about. With focused attention, the problem of youth suicide can be reduced. Chairs at graduation ceremonies should never go empty.