Suicides stalk Japan disaster zone

-'Heaven and hell'-

The tragedy in the Turakawa family home is not an isolated case. Japan's government says that in June alone at least 16 people, mostly in their 50s and 60s, killed themselves because of despair over the triple calamity of the quake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.

The numbers have heightened concern over a social scourge that was already a perennial problem in pre-disaster Japan. Every year more than 30,000 people take their lives in Japan, a rate lower only than in some ex-Soviet countries.

Experts fear that the monumental grief brought to Japan on March 11 will worsen the grim statistic as the hopelessness of life in crowded evacuation centres and temporary homes takes its emotional toll.

According to a local media report, one 93-year-old evacuee with a disability in Fukushima killed herself in June, explaining in a suicide note to her family: "I would only slow you down. I will evacuate to the grave."

Almost half a year on from the quake, the number of refugees stands above 87,000, including people from a 20-kilometre no-go zone around the radiation-leaking nuclear plant, according to Cabinet Office figures.

Experts say many survivors are haunted by guilt over having lived while others died, or because they were unable to save loved ones - feelings of complex grief that they say can spiral into chronic depression.

"Not so many people think of killing themselves shortly after such a massive disaster, because they feel grateful to have survived," said Hisao Sato, head of Kumo No Ito, a suicide prevention and counselling group.

"But as time goes by, people start to consider suicide as they face the reality, lose momentum and feel tired and discarded, while support from the outside diminishes. You can't live on hope alone."

Sato, who fears suicide rates will rise, has been trying to help with monthly visits to counsel survivors in the tsunami-hit city of Kamaishi.

Japan's government has said it is considering providing mental health care for victims who may be isolated in temporary housing and shelters.

But psychiatrists warn that such programmes alone won't be effective unless victims are also given comprehensive and practical support, including financial aid and help with finding new jobs and homes.

"Suicides do not decline only with mental health support," said Shinji Yukita, a psychiatrist and deputy director of the Saitama Cooperative Hospital in a neighbourhood north of Tokyo that is home to many evacuees.

"Mental care can work when victims already have fundamental life support and physical medical care," Yukita said.

Toshihiro Fujiwara, an official of the Iwate Suicide Prevention Centre, agrees: "This disaster was too big to be handled with ordinary support. We have to back victims in a multi-layered, comprehensive way."

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