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THE Japanese Government has warned of an epidemic of depression and suicide as a result of mental trauma caused by the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear disaster.
The country already has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, but new figures show that the number of deaths has risen almost a fifth compared with a year ago. In Miyagi, the region worst hit by the March 11 tsunami, the figures are especially alarming, with suicides up 39 per cent.
A government report is now warning that the stoicism of many victims in the early weeks of the disaster may mask post-traumatic stress disorder. This week a dairy farmer from the town of Soma, in the Fukushima region - near the crippled nuclear plant - was found to have hanged himself after being forced to sell his herd because of a ban on the sale of milk from the area.
"It is a characteristic of the Great East Japan Earthquake that, as well as stress caused by large and sudden changes to daily life and the traumatic experience of the earthquake and tsunami, there are feelings of grief and loss resulting from the huge number of people missing and killed," the Government said in the report.
"As well as grief, survivors also experience guilt because, although they tried to escape together, only some were saved. Then there is the shock of identifying bodies, for aid workers as well as victims, resulting in chronic depression or prolonged grief disorder."
The observations appear to be reflected in the new figures, which show an 18 per cent national increase in suicides. In May, 3,281 people killed themselves, 499 more than the same month in 2010. Suicides in Tokyo were up 27 per cent.
"Looking at the calm behaviour of many of the victims, we might assume that post-traumatic stress disorder caused by their experiences might be less than overseas," the report said.
"However, until we receive more detailed information, we cannot reach a simple conclusion."
Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, after Lithuania, several other former Soviet states and South Korea. In 2010, 31,690 people killed themselves in the country, the 13th consecutive year above 30,000.
Suicide rates are closely tied to national trauma. Numbers increased from around 25,000 to more than 30,000 a year in the late 1990s, at a time of widespread bankruptcies and lay-offs caused by the collapse of the so-called "bubble economy". The number has always corresponded to unemployment rates - both peaked in 2003, for example.
May is usually one of the worst months because of the low spirits at the beginning of the new corporate year - a condition known as gogatsubyo, or "May-itis".
Yoshiharu Kin, of the National Centre for Mental Health, said: "Many people recover within six months, but 10 to 20 per cent suffer from chronic conditions. Mental care after the disaster needs to work over several months and several years.