Franklin James Cook

Blue Lights: Suicide Prevention or Marketing Ploy?

In Research on November 11, 2009 at 9:42 am
BlueLights-TokyoTrains

Keihin Electric Express Railway trains arrive at Gumyoji Station in Yokohama, Japan. (Itsuo Inouye, The Associated Press)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

East Japan Railway has installed blue lights in all of its Tokyo central loop train stations because, according to a Nov. 4 Associated Press story “they hope [the lights] will have a soothing effect and reduce suicides.”

Here’s the interesting thing:

There’s no scientific proof that the lights actually reduce suicides.

No scientific proof. Zero. None.

The rationale for installing blue lights, according to a spokesman from another train company that did so on a smaller scale several years ago, was “‘we thought we had to do something to save lives.'”

“We know there is no scientific proof that blue lights will help deter suicides. But if blue has a soothing effect on the mind, we want to try it to save lives,” [said Keihin Railway spokesman Osamu Okawa].

In other words, they did something (whether or not it might be effective) because they had to do something.

Here’s how it works:

The lights, which are brighter than standard fluorescent bulbs, bathe the platform below in an eerie blue light. They hang at the end of each platform, a spot where people are most likely to throw themselves in front of a speeding train.

Using the same “logic,” wouldn’t we be “doing something about suicide” if we treated suicidal people by having them sit in a blue-lit room? Or how about if we start carrying anti-suicide flashlights that cast a strong beam of blue light with which we could “bathe” any suicidal person we encountered with the soothing effect caused in humans by their exposure to the color blue?

Not only is there no evidence now that the train station lights might work, but isn’t it true that there is no way to conduct a future study of their effectiveness in such a large-scale environment? I’m not a scientist, but eight million people use the railway system in question every day, and I don’t see a way to demonstrate — even if fatalities suddenly decreased by a dramatic number — that other factors other than the lights might be the cause of the reduction. (There were 68 fatalities in Tokyo stations operated by East Japan Railway in the most recent year reported.)

It makes me wonder if East Japan Railway spent $165,000, the cost of installing the blue lights in Tokyo, simply to demonstrate that the train company is “doing something” about suicide fatalities on its tracks (but without regard to the plan’s effectiveness).

Even more importantly, shouldn’t this make us all wonder about how many activities in the suicide prevention field overall are being done simply because we think “we have to do something to save lives.” How many programs and practices ostensibly designed to prevent suicide are in place now that lack scientific evidence about their effectiveness? How many are implemented that don’t include a reliable way to measure their effectiveness? The “blue light suicide prevention program” now in use in Tokyo certainly deserves scrutiny. Which suicide prevention programs elsewhere deserve the same scrutiny?

[The abridged URL for this post is http://tinyurl.com/BlueLights .]

[Editor’s note: A substantive comment (click on the red “Responses” link below) was posted on Nov. 23 by a psychologist working in Japan, which includes …

Useful telephone numbers and links for Japanese residents of Japan who speak Japanese and are feeling depressed or suicidal:
Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline Telephone Service):
Japan: 0120-738-556
Tokyo: 3264 4343
Tokyo Counseling Services:
http://tokyocounseling.com/english/
http://tokyocounseling.com/jp/
http://www.counselingjapan.com

… and it should be noted that the “Need Help?” tab above gives English-speaking readers guidance on what to do if they or someone they know is having thoughts of suicide. FJC]

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  1. I think your analysis is correct here. Good-hearted, well-intentioned people want to “do something” to combat the trauma of suicide, especially when it seems to be spreading. The suicide prevention community should continue to advise doing the right thing, not just something. Here in the U.S., rail organizations are putting up signs with hotline numbers (no two are the same so far), although there is no indication that this is an effective approach. AAS hopes to begin a research project on this in early 2010.

  2. An interesting post but, although a tragic loss of life, this story is typical of most media reports about suicide in Japan over the last ten years in that it focus on preventing a method of suicide rather than investigating the underlying causes of why people are killing themselves in such terrible high numbers every year in Japan.

    I am a JSCCP clinical psychologist and JFP psychotherapist working in Japan for over 20 years. I would like to put forward a perspective on some of the main reasons behind the unacceptably high suicide numbers Japan and so will limit my comments to what I know about here in Japan

    Mental health professionals in Japan have long known that some of the main reasons for the unnecessarily high suicide rate in Japan is due to unemployment, bankruptcies, and the increasing levels of stress on businessmen and other salaried workers who have suffered enormous hardship in Japan since the bursting of the stock market bubble here that peaked around 1997. Until that year Japan had an annual suicide of rate figures between 22,000 and 24,000 each year. Following the bursting of the stock market and the long term economic downturn that has followed here since the suicide rate in 1998 increased by around 35% and since 1998 the number of people killing themselves each year in Japan has consistently remained well over 30,000 each and every year to the present day. The current worldwide recession is of course impacting Japan too, so unless the new administration initiates very proactive and well funded local and nationwide suicide prevention programs and other mental health care initiatives, including tackling the widespread problem of clinical depression suffered by so many of the general population, it is very difficult to foresee the previous government’s stated target to reduce the suicide rate to around 23,000 by the year 2016 as being achievable. On the contrary the numbers, and the human suffering and the depression and misery that the people who become part of these numbers, have to endure may well stay at the current levels that have persistently been the case here for the last ten years. It could even get worse unless even more is done to prevent this terrible loss of life.

    The current numbers licensed psychiatrists (around 13,000), Japan Society of Certified Clinical Psychologists clinical psychologists (19,830 as of 2009), and Psychiatric Social Workers (39,108 as of 2009) must indeed be increased. In order for professional mental health counseling and psychotherapy services to be covered for depression and other mental illnesses by public health insurance it would seem advisable that positive action is taken to resume and complete the negotiations on how to achieve national licensing for clinical psychologists in Japan through the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and not just the Ministry of Education as is the current situation. These discussions were ongoing between all concerned mental health professional authorities that in the ongoing select committee and ministerial levels that were ongoing during the Koizumi administration. With the current economic recession adding even more hardship and stress in the lives its citizens, now would seem to be a prime opportunity for the responsible Japanese to take a pro-active approach to finally providing government approval for national licensing for clinical psychologists who provide mental health care counseling and psychotherapy services to the people of Japan.

    The current worldwide recession is of course impacting Japan too, so unless the new administration initiates very proactive and well funded local and nationwide suicide prevention programs and other mental health care initiatives, including tackling the widespread problem of clinical depression suffered by so many of the general population, it is very difficult to foresee the previous government’s stated target to reduce the suicide rate to around 23,000 by the year 2016 as being achievable. On the contrary the numbers, and the human suffering and the depression and misery that the people who become part of these numbers, have to endure may well stay at the current levels that have persistently been the case here for the last ten years. It could even get worse unless even more is done to prevent this terrible loss of life.

    During these last ten years of these relentlessly high annual suicide rate numbers the English media seems in the main to have done little more than have someone goes through the files and do a story on the so-called suicide forest or internet suicide clubs and copycat suicides (whether cheap heating fuel like charcoal briquettes or even cheaper household cleaning chemicals) and mirrors at stations, and now lights at stations, without focusing on the bigger picture and need for effective action and solutions.

    Economic hardship, bankruptcies and unemployment have been the main cause of suicide in Japan over the last 10 years, as the well detailed reports behind the suicide rate numbers that have been issued every year until now by the National Police Agency in Japan show only to clearly if any journalist is prepared to learn Japanese or get a bilingual researcher to do the research to get to the real heart of the tragic story of the long term and unnecessarily high suicide rate problem in Japan.

    I would also like to suggest that as many Japanese people have very high reading skills in English that any articles dealing with suicide in Japan could usefully provide contact details for hotlines and support services for people who are depressed and feeling suicidal.

    Useful telephone numbers and links for Japanese residents of Japan who speak Japanese and are feeling depressed or suicidal:
    Inochi no Denwa (Lifeline Telephone Service):

    Japan: 0120-738-556
    Tokyo: 3264 4343

    Tokyo Counseling Services:
    http://tokyocounseling.com/english/
    http://tokyocounseling.com/jp/

    http://www.counselingjapan.com

  3. […] few weeks ago in my post about blue lights at train stations as a preventative measure against suicide, I was critical of officials doing […]

  4. The blue lights may not have stopped people from jumping on the tracks – but it certainly did get people thinking and talking about suicide. It also sends a message to the people who are considering suicide – someone cares enough to spend money to prevent suicide. Do you have proof that public awareness has no effect on suicide rates?

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