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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Looking for a Lifeline

Apr. 24, 2017

Japanese society has long grappled with the problem of suicide. Last year, about 22,000 people in the country took their own lives. An organization called "Lifeline" has been working for years to try and help with the problem. It's a phone service run by volunteers to counsel people thinking about taking their own lives. Since it started in 1971, Lifeline has received more than 1.7 million calls. But recently, it's been shorthanded on people to pick up the phones.

"Hello, this is the Hokkaido Lifeline."

In Hokkaido in northern Japan, more than a thousand people commit suicide each year.

The phones never stop. That's because there aren't enough volunteers. More than two thousand people a year ring to say that they want to commit suicide. But only 4 percent of the calls get answered.

One volunteer says. “Some people say they’ve been contemplating suicide for a long time. Others say there’s a rope around their neck.”

The shortage of volunteers is increasingly becoming a problem for Lifeline's work.

Lifeline's Akira Sugimoto points out holes in schedule. “Tomorrow evening. Here and here. It’s open, and I can't fill it,” he says.

Lifeline is trying to operate 24 hours a day, so it can save as many lives as possible.

"No one can predict when someone will think about suicide, so we want to be able to receive phone calls through the night," says Sugimoto.

Yoshiko Hayashi has been in charge of recruiting and training volunteers for Lifeline all over Japan.

Lifeline was established in Australia in 1963. And the service in Japan started in 1971. In those days, the volunteers were mostly housewives.

“Everyone wanted to help others. They came thinking that they might be of some service,” says Hayashi.

But over the last few years, the number of volunteers has seen a sharp drop.

In 2001, at its peak, the organization had almost 8 thousand volunteers. Over the last 15 years that number has decreased by about 20 percent.

Experts point out that society has changed, with an increase in two income households. Japan has also become an aging population and many people have to look after their parents.

"Before they think about applying, people need to figure out whether they have the time and the energy," says Hayashi.

Now, instead of waiting for volunteers to apply, Hokkaido Lifeline has started to actively recruit people.

At a suicide prevention workshop for the general public they appealed for participants.

Speaking to a group of attendees, Sugimoto says, “We’re currently short of volunteers, and in a tough position. It would be great if you could apply,”

People showed interest but no one applied.

Lifeline has been helping Japanese society for decades, but now society needs to find ways to support this vital service that saves people from taking their own lives.