Suicide rates among young women in South Korea and Japan have seen an alarming increase this year, raising fears about the mental health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has heightened economic insecurities and social isolation.
Both East Asian nations have long suffered some of the highest suicide figures in the world, but experts say the prolonged pandemic has aggravated existing trends.
They point to the documented surge in South Korea and Japan as a warning to other countries of the hidden consequences of extended social distancing measures and money worries.
Between January and June in South Korea, 1,924 girls and women died by suicide, according to the Korea Suicide Prevention Centre, representing a 7.1 per cent spike on last year.
For the first six months of the pandemic, women in their 20s in South Korea’s capital Seoul attempted suicide four to five times more frequently than any other demographic, reported the Korea Herald, citing a city official.
The figures indicate that this year’s global health disaster has accelerated an established pattern.
According to an Institute for Society and Health report in December 2019, the rise in suicides among Korean millennial women has far outpaced their male counterparts over the last 20 years.
Jang Soong-nang, a professor at the Red Cross College of Nursing and co-author of the report, told the Telegraph that the number of suicides among city-dwelling young women had jumped in part because they had become more economically vulnerable.
“The unemployment rate for women in their twenties has risen significantly, and many part time jobs have disappeared due to Covid-19,” she said.
“The proportion of single-person households among women in their twenties is increasing, and there is a high possibility that they will suffer in a situation where debt is quite high,” Prof Jang added.
“In addition, the culture of gender discrimination and gender segregation in employment, marriage, pregnancy and child-rearing, that is deeply rooted in Korean society, can make life more difficult.”
Jin Wook-shin, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University, said the rise could be linked to the “special structural challenges” faced by Korea’s young people.
“The chances of having a ‘good job’ and ‘decent work’ are much less than in the past. Even if you get a good job, there is a high risk of being fired.”
This, and unaffordable housing left young people with the feeling that there was “no hope,” he warned.
“We may call it ‘inequality of disaster’. Those who were already in more difficult situations before the corona pandemic are more likely to be exposed to unemployment, poverty, declining income, social isolation, and crisis of care.”
In Japan, the number of suicides in October alone was 2,153 - eclipsing the nation’s Covid-19 death toll of 2,141 for the entire year.
The stand-out demographic in the soaring figures was young women, where the rate among the under-40s was double the mean average for the last three years, said Michiko Ueda, an associate political sciences professor at Waseda University.
Women were not only bearing the brunt of job losses, but also the pressure of additional household chores, she argued. “The burden of childcare and household chores falls mainly on women.”
Prof Ueda also attributed a spate of high profile celebrity suicides as an influencing factor, most likely exacerbated by the on-going stigma surrounding mental health issues in Japan.
She urged the government to target subsidies towards the most vulnerable and set up a single national helpline as it was “almost impossible” to reach existing hotlines.
Koki Ozora, a 21-year-old student who in March launched Anata no Ibasho - “a place for you” -which is a 24-hour text messaging counselling service, said about 80% of an average 200 daily messages were women.
“The most important thing is to tackle loneliness..the government should appoint a minister of loneliness and fight it nationally,” he said.