In the last decade, Japan has seen a steady decline in the number of suicides, with 2019 registering the lowest figure since records began in 1978. However, provisional statistics from the National Police Agency suggest that suicide numbers in Japan have increased sharply in 2020, affecting women and teenagers disproportionately.

While more than 2,000 Japanese deaths are attributed to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the pandemic has taken a toll of severe economic, social, and emotional impacts on large segments of the population, which may have led to the higher suicide numbers in recent months. Indeed, in October 2020 alone, the number of suicides recorded in Japan spiked to 2,153.

The reasons behind suicides are multifaceted and complex, but evidence repeatedly points to the deterioration of mental health as one of the critical risk factors in Japan and around the world. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has induced social isolation, fear, uncertainty, anxiety, and economic hardship, causing a lot of mental stress globally, which could lead to a global mental health crisis, according to a recent United Nations (UN) report. Surveys done earlier this year show a high prevalence of mental anguish, with rates of mental distress at 35% in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), 58% in the Philippines, and 45% in the United States. 

Studies on disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and droughts find that the level of mental stress is high among victims. It is no wonder the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and other disasters triggered by natural hazards in 2020 has taken a massive toll on people.

What is worse, while physical distancing has proven effective in reducing COVID-19 contagions, it directly undermines real-world social interactions, networks, and bonds among people. This highlights the importance of promoting “wellness,” which is the active pursuit of activities, choices, and lifestyles that lead to a state of overall health.

Wellness is multidimensional and leads to holistic health, happiness, and well-being. Physical, mental, and social wellness are the most salient dimensions. Wellness is central to development and is, in fact, one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (goal #3), stating that countries should “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for everybody, at all ages.”

To keep high levels of wellness even while social distancing, access to digital platforms such as social networking services will be crucial. Digital learning opportunities will also be essential to ensure that students continue to study at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments in Asia and the Pacific, as well as in other regions, can play a critical role in mitigating the digital divide—the unequal access to online services—by increasing investment in information and communications infrastructure and making their services affordable and inclusive.

In addition, governments can support public infrastructure that promotes overall wellness, including walkways, bicycle lanes, parks, recreation centers, and free sporting facilities. This will increase the number of people who participate in recreational physical activities on a regular basis. Such activities can also promote mental wellness. In Asia and the Pacific, recreational physical activity participation rate is at 33.2%, below the global average of 35.5%. Public infrastructure and programs for wellness are especially important for poorer people, who usually lack access to private wellness facilities such as fitness centers.

Promotion of wellness in these ways will ensure robust and sustainable recovery from the pandemic, partly because wellness has been a big part of the global and regional economy even before COVID-19 struck. According to a recent study by the Asian Development Bank, wellness-related industries account for about 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP) or $4.5 trillion in 2018, and about 11% of the GDP of developing countries in Asia in 2017—and this is growing by about 10% annually.

Wellness tourism, for instance, employed 3.74 million people in India, 1.78 million in the PRC, and 530,000 in Thailand in 2017. Wellness, thus, promotes inclusive growth not only by contributing to employment, especially female employment, but also by fostering the development of micro and small enterprises.

Wellness, in short, will not only improve the physical and mental health of Asians but can also act as an engine of growth. It is vital for Asia’s post-pandemic recovery.