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Supporting Mental Health in Japan – Reflections on TELL

CraigWhen I first became involved with TELL four years ago I learned that most people are connected to TELL for very personal reasons. I am a businessperson, a husband, a father, a son and a brother. I am fortunate that mental health issues have not been prevalent in our family. However, there have been many instances when I have supported staff members who have had difficulties. I also know mental health professionals and many people associated with the TELL community.

I have learned that it is a tough subject. People are not comfortable talking about their own battles with mental health or those of their loved ones. It is a deeply personal experience. This “not visible” and “not knowing” makes it harder to understand the scope and also the impact that organizations like TELL have on the community.

One thing is for certain is that when TELL is there to support a person with difficulties it is quite often the only avenue available. I know this because many people have expressed their gratitude to me for the services TELL provided for them directly, for work colleagues, or for a friend or loved one.

What does TELL do?

This year TELL proudly celebrates its 43rd anniversary of service to Japan. TELL is a registered non-profit organization that provides mental health support and counseling throughout Japan via three main services: the Lifeline, TELL Counseling and TELL Outreach.

TELL’s Lifeline is a free, anonymous, and confidential English-language telephone counseling service offered every day of the year throughout Japan and staffed by highly trained volunteers.

TELL’s Counseling Center is the only accredited counseling center in Japan staffed by licensed, western-trained professionals that provides confidential face-to-face assessments and counseling for all ages in Tokyo and Yokohama in English, Japanese and other languages, as well as video-based services for those who live outside the metropolitan area.

TELL’s outreach programs include a learning series for adults and workshops for parents and educators. Topics include child protection, depression, rape and sexual assault and suicide prevention.

Two years ago the TELL board and Directors decided that the number one objective for TELL is for the Lifeline to move as quickly as possible to a 24 hours, 7 days per week service. Currently the Lifeline operates from 9am – 11pm every day. In reality, moving from the current 14 hours per day to 24 hours requires a combination of money and a suitable number of trained volunteers.

One little known fact about the TELL Lifeline is that up to 60% of the callers are Japanese. Even though the service is provided only in English, many Japanese call in for help. They do this because either Japanese-language services are overloaded or they prefer the TELL phone counseling methodology. Either way, TELL is proud to be supporting the broader Japan community, but also mindful that the current demand for services is far greater than we can supply.

Community support is making a difference

With the help of the community, TELL has made great progress over the past two years.

• Unanswered calls going through to the answering machine are 27% lower than last year
• Lifeline call volume has increased 6% year-on-year
• Empty shifts caused in part by a shortage of phone counselors is at its lowest point in seven years
• The Kansai telephone center is now in its second year of operation
• The number of Lifeline counselors in Kansai has doubled year-on-year
• The Kansai initiative is helping to increase TELL branding, services and awareness in west Japan, while also improving overall Lifeline service

As a part of the move toward a 24/7 Lifeline service, TELL will incorporate a chat line in 2016. Not only will this help us reach people who are vulnerable during the night, but also, research has shown, the service will help us better connect with young people, 30 and under.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer TELL phone counselor, you will need to complete the well-regarded TELL phone counselor training course, offered twice a year in Kanto and Kansai. You can find the details for the training here.

TELL funding and support

TELL is totally reliant on the generosity and support of the TELL community. There are no government handouts. When I became board chair there was a model in place that relied on having wealthy and influential people on the board. The board members were expected to donate most of the required funds to keep TELL operating. This was a strategy with severe limitations and heavy reliance on a few individuals.

Since the global financial crisis, this approach to running NPOs seems to have changed dramatically. Even after 40 years, TELL seemed stuck in a maintenance or barely sustainable mode. The board took it upon itself to look at other NPOs in Japan, Australia and the US to try to ascertain a better way to fund the organization.

The first that was taken was to appoint an Executive Director whose main priority is to raise money. TELL’s ED, Roberto De Vido, has put in place a broad range of new initiatives aimed at raising funds. This includes calling on traditional and potential corporate supporters, and the response has been very encouraging. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the landscape of companies with generous CSR budgets has changed, but they are out there and continue to be willing to support important community services like TELL.

Other initiatives put in place have included providing individual supporters with the opportunity to make micro-donations each month, join TELL wine clubs and participate in TELL outdoor adventures and fun runs.

The board members are still important supporters for TELL, but the balance has shifted a bit in the expectation that overall funding will increase and TELL will be able to start saying “yes” much more to requests for support from the community.

I have been privileged to be the TELL Board Chair for the last three and a half years, and it has been an incredible and humbling learning experience. The board members have evolved a lot and will continue to do so. However, without exception I have found the board member commitment and raison d’être for being part of TELL the most energizing aspect.

Beyond the board, the TELL community is made up of many different groups, and there are many ways to get involved and support TELL. The unifying characteristic of TELL supporters is their concern for mental health, and their belief that access to mental health services is vital to community well-being.

There are many ways you can become involved in TELL: as an individual donor, corporate donor, volunteer phone counselor, clinical counselor, volunteer or staff member, as well as supporter of US TELL (which supports TELL).

In particular I want to thank Dr. Tsuyoshi Akiyama (TELL Board Chair 1999-2012) and Dr. Linda Semlitz (TELL Clinical Director 2009-2014) for sponsoring me and giving me the opportunity.

The incoming Board Chair is Dr. Anne Bille, who has been on the TELL board for several years and has provided great support to me in the role of Vice Chair.

– Craig Saphin
Tokyo, March 16, 2016