Mental health is perceived in different ways all over the world. In Japan, mental health has long held the association of being taboo. Yet people working themselves to death is commonplace, while younger generations are feeling more pressure to enter a lifetime of work.
However, in recent years, attitudes towards mental health in Japan have started to improve. More people are going to counselling services and openly recognising disorders like depression and PTSD as illnesses. As acceptance around mental health grows in Japan, a discipline that could be very beneficial in the future is mental health first aid (MHFA).
What is mental health first aid?
MHFA is an internationally recognised training course that teaches people how to spot symptoms of mental health disorders such as anxiety and schizophrenia. Mental health first aiders can provide support for anyone who’s going through a crisis and lower stigma around specific issues.
But before looking into how MHFA can be applied, it’s worth examining the mental health challenges that are common in Japan.
The state of mental health in Japan
According to Japan Today, there’s a shift developing around mental health in the Land of the Rising Sun. There are more clinical psychologists than ever before. For example, mental health professional Andrew Grimes established a clinic in 1999 called Tokyo Counselling Services (TCS) and has seen an increase in other counselling businesses.
“We are very secure now, and we are getting new clients weekly. I’m feeling quite satisfied now that I have achieved my goals to have a functioning, full counselling centre. Primarily, we are seeing people with depression, PTSD, social anxiety disorder and panic attacks. And we have increased couples counselling quite dramatically. At least 20% of our clients are couples.”
This is a far cry from previous attitudes that saw Japanese people viewing counselling as ‘a place where crazy people go.’ But there are still many challenges to be faced, which include:
- Young people feeling pressure from their parents to get a job and developing anxiety
- Social media culture leading to depression
- A lack of mental health facilities outside of Tokyo e.g. in countryside areas
How could MHFA help to improve mental health for the Japanese population?
Given Japan’s fast-paced work culture, having a mental health first aider in the office could have its advantages. When applying MHFA, a first aider will go with the following action plan:
A – Approach the person, assess and assist with any crisis.
L – Listen and communicate non-judgmentally.
G – Give support and information.
E – Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help.
E – Encourage other supports.
ALGEE is at the heart of mental health first aid. The first step involves approaching the person in crisis and asking them how they feel. But it’s also about giving them space and setting up an environment that they feel comfortable talking in. The second step involves actively listening to the person and taking away your own frame of reference (FOR). In other words, avoiding platitudes like ‘I know exactly how you feel…’ The only person who knows what it’s like to feel that specific issue is the one suffering from it. Once you take away your FOR/own experiences of the world, you can listen to them in a non-judgmental way.
After the individual feels comfortable, it’s time to provide emotional support. The fourth stage focuses on encouraging the person to find professional help e.g. from a therapist. This is accompanied by empowering them to find their own support system and seek help on their own terms.
But MHFA isn’t about being a therapist or trying to ‘fix’ the person. It’s not about offering advice or solving problems. It’s about helping someone find the motivation they need to go out and get the help that is right for them.
As someone who’s done MHFA training, I believe it can be extremely powerful for encouraging a positive approach to mental health. In the context of Japan, a mental health first aider could act as a ‘middleman’ between someone who is suffering from a disorder and a counselor. But it would have to be the sufferer’s decision.
Hope for the future
The main point to take away is that the state of mental health within Japan has improved dramatically. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s my hope that mental health first aid will be able to find its place in Japan one day and become more important all over the world as well.
So long as we continue to talk about mental health openly, there is always hope.