• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 14th April, 2009

Understanding Japan's "anxious" schoolchildren

The high suicide rate among Japanese adults is well reported in the West where it has become part of the latest popular assumption about the pressures implicit in some aspects of the Eastern lifestyle. The range of data on the incidence of emotional disturbance among Japanese children is patchier and still less completely understood, but some reports estimate that levels of anxiety and depression are running far higher than in other developed nations.A small group of Japanese researchers is investigating the underlying problems Japanese children may be experiencing and is considering effective responses. Existing services to meet their emotional needs are relatively immature, with the balance of investment being directed toward intervention rather than prevention. The new work is beginning to suggest the greater potential benefits of preventative strategies.Last year, Prevention Actionreported on a systematic review by Shin-ichi Ishikawa and colleagues at the University of Miyazaki, which looked at the value of cognitive behavioral treatment for children with depression. [Read Look at it this way, cognitive therapy really works]The same team have continued their line of inquiry with a series of small scale evaluations of the value of CBT in school settings.Their studies have shown how the emotional problems of Japanese children seep into social skills deficits. Children with depressive symptoms tend to find getting help, being positive and being assertive all difficult. This leads to challenges in school, in terms of their relationships with teachers and other students, and exam performance.A variety of forms of CBT have been tried all involving several school classes at a time. They have included combinations of social skills training, guidance on problem-solving and methods for raising self awareness about emotional reactions.The experiments all require a universal application of the program, so all children in a school are potential beneficiaries. Progress has been hindered by the novelty in Japanese society of this kind of approach. Trials are easier to conduct in rural areas so, as yet, there is less data on the efficacy of CBT from the urban schools which the majority of Japanese students attend. The researchers have been careful to make comparisons with control groups of children not receiving the intervention, but as yet there have been no randomized controlled trials.Nonetheless, results are promising. On a range of measures, depression is much reduced and social skills improve considerably. The indirect benefits are felt in terms of academic performance.Looking forward, Shin-ichi Ishikawa sees a need to delineate the emotional symptoms displayed by Japanese children more exactly, with a greater focus on anxiety and methods for reducing it.The work involves changing hearts and minds as well as the application of good science. Parents and teachers have relatively little interest in psychological interventions, and the idea of prevention is under-developed. Parental participation in the programs is a particular challenge.

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