Pope Francis Urges Japan to Address Suicide and Depression in Tokyo Speech

Pope Francis at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019, in Nagasaki, Japan. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

On his first day in Japan, Pope Francis hit the ground running during a meeting with local bishops, where he appealed to the country’s Catholic history as an “antidote against despair” in a society faced with high youth suicide rates and an aging population.

“All of us are aware of the grave problems affecting people in your communities whose lives are marked, for various reasons, by loneliness, despair and isolation,” Francis said in a speech to the Japanese episcopacy at the Apostolic Nunciature in Tokyo Saturday (Nov. 23).

The pope pointed to the “increase in the rates of suicide” and “bullying” as responsible for “new forms of alienation and spiritual disorientation.”

Francis is visiting Japan on the second leg of his Nov. 20-26 apostolic visit to Asia, which previously led him to Thailand. Both countries have a very small Catholic community, only 0.5% in Thailand and 0.3% in Japan.

In his speech, the pope said that he has “felt a fondness and affection” for Japan since he was young, when he dreamed of becoming a missionary priest. Today, Francis continued, he comes to the country “as a missionary pilgrim” and to support the small local church in raising its voice “when addressing pressing issues of peace and justice in our world.”

Among the issues facing Japan is the alarming suicide rate, which is so great that it has become a matter of public debate in the country. Starting in the late 1990’s, Japan saw a steep rise in suicide deaths. During its peak in 2003, about 70 people committed suicide every day.

Suicide cases have been steadily declining in the past three to nine years, but certain pockets of the Japanese population remain at risk. More than 300 children, from elementary to high school, committed suicide in 2018, according to research by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Suicide rates have grown 42% every year, the same research showed, with the problem plaguing high schoolers most.

The most common causes of suicide, government data shows, tend to be depression, the pressure of family and work life and bullying, but in many cases the factors that lead to suicide remain unknown, challenging doctors and researchers looking for solutions.

Francis urged the country’s bishops to cater to young people in particular since they are the most prone to commit suicide and are “thirsting for compassion.”

“Try to create spaces in which the culture of efficiency, performance and success can become open to a culture of generosity and selfless love, capable of offering to everyone — not only to those who have ‘made it’ — the possibility of a happy and successful life,” he said.

“With their zeal, ideas and energy, young people — when well-formed and accompanied — can be a deep source of hope to their contemporaries and bear vital witness to Christian charity.”

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Source: Religion News Service