In the past, Akita Prefecture used to be the region with the highest suicide rate across Japan.
Realizing the problem, the prefectural government had, since 1999, diverted substantial resources into community-based suicide prevention efforts, focusing on initiatives such as training local citizens as “gatekeepers” so that they can listen to single seniors and keep them company.
The sustained government efforts have paid off: 20 years on, today the suicide rate in the Akita prefecture has dropped to a 40-year low, with its national suicide rate ranking also falling from first to sixth, indicating that community-based suicide prevention initiatives are highly efficacious.
Hong Kong has also faced some problem in relation to the issue. In 2010, six young adults jumped to their death one after another within four months in the same housing estate in North District.
To stem the tragic and worrisome tide, the Social Welfare Department and the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention (CSRP) in the University of Hong Kong, along with different government departments and stakeholders, launched a series of initiatives, between 2011 and 2015, on suicide prevention in North District.
After three years of work, the “suicide effect” in that housing estate has disappeared, and the number of suicide cases in North District has also declined.
As a matter of fact, facilitating social consensus is the first step in any community-based suicide prevention program.
Right from the beginning, the Social Welfare Department and the CSRP, along with government branches, hospitals, the police and social service institutions in North District, have set up a cross-sector task force in order to formulate a joint working plan.
The participation of the Social Welfare Department was definitely crucial, in that it was instrumental in leading and coordinating the cross-sector cooperation among various government branches, as well as facilitating communication within the task force and establishing a viable notification mechanism on suicide cases.
As far as the CSRP is concerned, its main role was to make sure that the joint community-based suicide prevention efforts were carried out in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the World Health Organization, to establish a monitoring mechanism and to analyze statistics so as to identify high-risk groups.
Meanwhile, it was also charged with devising mental health promotion strategies, based on the demographics of North District, in order to enable the task force to systematically implement its suicide prevention program.
Such strategies included holding a series of mental health promotion events to raise the community awareness about the issue.
Meanwhile, in housing estates where the “suicide effect” was detected, the Housing Department would get the message across to property management companies and ask them to ensure that all doors to the rooftop of every apartment building must be locked in a long-term arrangement.
At the same time, as the youth unemployment rate in North District is higher than the city average while the median household income level is lower, a strategic scheme has been launched to provide internship opportunities for young people in the district so as to let unemployed youth acquire positive work experience.
The joint efforts in North District showed that cross-sector collaboration and evidence-based community suicide prevention initiatives have proven effective in building a community safety net to prevent suicide.
As members of the community, we all can also play gatekeepers, and care about our neighbors as well as people around us.
A study by the CSRP has suggested that young people tend to look to their friends and families for help first when they are seeking assistance.
As such, the first thing we need to do is to debunk the myths about suicide and mental problems, and wake up to the importance of caring about people around us, as well as to understand the relevant community resources at our disposal.
Together, we can put up a community safety net, under which our young people will no longer have to deal with their issues and stress alone.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 13
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
– Contact us at [email protected]