In the last decade, Japan has seen a steady decline in the number of suicides, with 2019 registering the lowest figure since record-keeping began in 1978.

However, provisional statistics from the National Police Agency suggest that suicides in Japan have increased sharply in 2020, affecting women and teenagers disproportionately.

While more than 2,000 Japanese deaths are attributable to 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 multi-faceted 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 report.

Surveys done earlier this year show a high prevalence of mental anguish, with rates of mental distress at 35 percent in the People’s Republic of China, 58 percent in the Philippines and 45 percent in the United States.

Studies on disasters such as earthquakes, tsunami, 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 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (goal No. 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, the recreational physical activity participation rate is at 33.2 percent, below the global average of 35.5 percent. 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 percent of global GDP, or $4.5 trillion (464.961 trillion yen), in 2018, and about 11 percent of the GDP of developing countries in Asia in 2017--and this is growing by about 10 percent annually.

Wellness tourism, for example, employed 3.74 million people in India, 1.78 million in the People’s Republic of China 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.


Yasuyuki Sawada is the chief spokesperson for the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on economic and development trends, and leads the Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department (ERCD), which publishes the ADB's flagship knowledge products.