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EDITORIAL/사회 :: Current Issues

Stop Suicides in South Korea

By: Christine Lee 

I stared in disbelief as I viewed the list of countries by suicide rate for the first time, in order to write this article. The list soon got difficult to look at.

 I had always known that my home country, South Korea, had a high suicide rate - for a developed country. When I clicked the link that led me to the list, I expected to see nations conventionally viewed as "downtrodden," take up the first ten slots of the list. Many of the nations I had in mind were supposed to be places where it was harder for civilians to live a normal life; maybe they suffered from an ongoing war, mass poverty, or a totalitarian regime.

 To my surprise, after the first country, Guyana, there it was horrifyingly high in the ranks: #2 South Korea.



Going down the list, it’s easy to notice that with the exception of South Korea, these are all developing nations. In the majority of these nations, personal freedoms and basic physiological needs are not met, and surviving another day can be more challenging both physically and psychologically. However, South Korea is a developed, democratic nation with generally higher living standards than the other nations on the list.

 High rise buildings, modern technology, countless cosmetic stores, 24-hour coffee shops and restaurants, and a glamorous k-pop culture, which seems to be going viral overseas. Seoul seems to be a vibrant, blooming capital. Which led me to wonder: why exactly are the people of a country that seems to be on the rise economically and culturally, so unhappy? Furthermore, what makes suicide a viable option in a successful nation?

 To answer the first question, there seems to be a variety of speculated reasons, with two of the most prominent being media and education.

 South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous nations in the world[2], and I’ve first-handedly observed many congruities in its people – in cultural beliefs, customs, and perceptions. Due to factors such as a shared national history and a uniform language, it is easier for people to share similar views and follow the same trends. It is easier to communicate with one another, or arrive at a common understanding.

While this makes for a close and united nation, it has its drawbacks. 49 million people are watching the same top three news stations, and are more easily influenced through media. Suicides are highly covered by the media, and studies have shown that after wide media coverage of a celebrity’s suicide, suicides among the general population surge.

 I still remember the circumstances of “Nation’s Actress” Choi Jin-sil’s suicide in Korea seven years ago. News of it was everywhere. My grandparents were talking about her death, her suicide seemed to be the only thing discussed on the news, and people on busy streets and shopping malls were discussing it. Everyone shared a common subject of discussion for that day, and would greet each other with the same news, “Did you hear?”

Soon spin-offs of investigations into her suicide caught the interest of the nation’s people and for days and weeks after, various news outlets published details about Choi’s hardships and complications that led to her suicide. Even her family members were investigated. Crowds waited in front of her home. People cared so much about her death, and specifically the horrifying method in which she died.

Then followed an interesting phenomenon. People were killing themselves in the way Choi had. Choi had killed herself in the bathroom by wrapping pressure bandages around her neck and tying herself to the shower stall[3]. In the following days, people in different parts of the country were found hanging themselves in the bathroom shower. In a case where a famous celebrity committed suicide using monoxide from charcoal, unusual numbers of people were found using the poisonous gas for suicide in the following days[4]. A detailed study examined the amount of media coverage celebrities’ deaths received, and the number of suicides that followed. The amount of media coverage correlated greatly with the percentage of suicides that happened through the next 9 weeks, whereas little media coverage resulted in no abnormalities[5]. While the correlations can be viewed as coincidences, factors such as unemployment were observed and still, the celebrities’ suicides most closely preceded periods of high percentage of suicides. Furthermore, out of thirteen celebrities, the top three that received most media coverage drew the most number of suicides in the days and weeks after.

I sometimes wonder if I would’ve been as familiar with the idea of suicide at age 13 if I had been of a different nationality.

 It seems that media and press coverage on high profile suicides often influence citizens to make similar decisions. Media coverage and news can shape a person’s daily thoughts and the thoughts can spark actions. If a person is already dealing with depression and suicidal thoughts, constant news of suicide through different media outlets can familiarize victims with idea and play a role in encouraging them to take the irreversable step.

Another area being blamed for high suicide rates among younger citizens is the highly demanding education system. In Korea, a typical high school student must take the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) in order to apply to colleges. In contrast to America’s more holistic application process, nearly the entire admission decision is based upon a single CSAT score for a Korean high school student, and his or her class ranking. Therefore competition and pressure are often unbearable for these students.

 A typical high school student’s day in life looks like this: school from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m., after hours studying from the end of school to past dinnertime, and hakwon (academic institutions for further instruction on distinct areas of study) until 12 a.m., although the law prohibits hakwons from running past 10 p.m. Students get no days off from hakwon except for one or two days in the entire year for New Year's and Thanksgiving. A student gets assigned more homework at hakwon than actual school. Parents can also watch their kids at hakwon on their smartphones, and more than a quarter of high school teachers have admitted accepting bribes from desperate parents[6]. Education is prioritized in South Korea, however, because the system functions around test scores and class rankings, students often feel objectified to numbers and find suicide an escape from this type of lifestyle. 1000 students from age 10 to 19 committed suicide from the years 2000-2003[7]. Because competition grows stronger every year with fewer jobs available, the numbers today are even higher.

Certainly, both the media and education system play roles in high suicides rates in South Korea. However, there seems to be an even more important area to observe and emphasize when dealing with high suicide rates in South Korea, which brings me to mental health.

Individuals of healthy emotional and mental fortitude will not kill themselves because they hear of a famous person committing the act. An individual with no symptom of psychological illness will not seek to escape their life through suicide solely due to overwhelming pressures from education. Neither mass media nor education can kill a person. In order for a person to reach the extreme point of suicide, both biological and environmental factors must contribute simultaneously.

Biological factors include the likeliness for an individual at birth, to inherit and develop psychological illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Most mental disorders and illnesses are inheritable, and percentages increase depending on a child’s biological parents. Biological circumstances are crucial to analyze. Even depression, which is often easily dismissed in South Korea, is a psychological disease. 15% of those that suffer from depression end up committing suicide[8]. This is an alarmingly high death rate. According to South Korean author of “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself,” Young-Ha Kim, 60% of people killing themselves in the country are suffering from depression. Some researchers even say it's closer to 80-90%. It’s important to remember that mental illnesses are a heavily influential factor in a person’s decision to commit suicide, and they must be treated to the fullest extent. Kim continues, however, “too many people in South Korea have outdated views of psychological illness. Many think that when someone is suicidal he simply lacks a strong will to live; he’s weak. There’s little sympathy or interest in probing below the surface[9]”. A person with a mental illness or disorder is not weak; they suffer from a chemical and biological condition they cannot fully control without proper medical help.

While South Korea emphasizes social progress and modernization, deeper issues such as mental illnesses and depression are stigmatized. Depression and other mental illnesses are not commonly discussed in the public sphere, and as a result they are not taken nearly as seriously as they should be. According to the Kim Eo-su, a professor of psychiatry at Yonsei Severance Hospital, many people with severe depression believe they can get rid of their depression symptoms through exercise or religion. The lack of magnitude on mental health issues makes it prone for these people to dismiss their internal issues and try not to face it. Rejecting depression symptoms can only worsen their conditions, yet people continue avoiding therapy and denying their problems[10]. They fear that they will be labeled and not respected, and that records will affect their futures negatively, such as losing custody over children in case of a divorce, or not getting hired by certain employers.

Efforts are being made to address mental health in order to prevent suicides. Cities are creating programs, projects, and campaigns to prevent suicides. The national government is spending $7 million a year on suicide prevention services. However, that amount is only a mere fraction of its neighbor Japan, whose government dedicates $130 million to the cause and has seen remarkable differences[11].

Not only are government efforts required, but societal perceptions and attitudes towards those affected by mental disorders and illnesses must also change. Because mental disorders and illnesses are very common, it’s important for people to educate themselves well, and accept and understand what others and/or them selves are dealing with. Furthermore, those suffering from mental disorders and illnesses must be humanized and not objectified to their conditions so they can live with the dignity that every human being is entitled to.

I look forward to seeing a Seoul in which Korean citizens are more familiar with mental issues, and address them with respect. In return affected individuals can shamelessly reach for assistance and work to build stronger mental and emotional fortitude, and find a greater will to live on. Ultimately, resisting negative environmental factors nomatter how great the obstaclecan become a little easier for everybody.

[1] "Suicide Rates Data by Country." Global Health Observatory Data Repository. World Health Organization, n.d. Web. Oct. 2015.

[2] "Demographics of South Korea." New World Encyclopedia. N.p., 13 Aug. 2013. Web. Oct. 2015.

[3] Thomson, Katherine. "Choi Jin-sil, South Korean Popular Actress, Dead In Apparent Suicide." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. Oct. 2015.

[4] Ji, Nam Ju, Weon Young Lee, Maeng Seok Noh, and Paul S.f. Yip. "The Impact of Indiscriminate Media Coverage of a Celebrity Suicide on a Society with a High Suicide Rate: Epidemiological Findings on Copycat Suicides from South Korea." Journal of Affective Disorders 156 (2014): 56-61.

[5] Fu, King-Wa, C. H. Chan, and Michel Botbol. "A Study of the Impact of Thirteen Celebrity Suicides on Subsequent Suicide Rates in South Korea from 2005 to 2009." PLoS ONE, 2013, E53870.

[6] Card, James. "Life and death exams in South Korea." Asia Times 11, no. 30 (2005): 2005.

[7] Card, James. "Life and death exams in South Korea." Asia Times 11, no. 30 (2005): 2005.

[8] "Overview." All About Depression. N.p., 2013. Web. Nov. 2015.

[9] Kim, Young-ha. "South Korea’s Struggle With Suicide." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Apr. 2014. Web. Nov. 2015.

[10] Mcdonald, Mark. "Stressed and Depressed, Koreans Avoid Therapy." The New York Times. The New York Times, 06 July 2011. Web. Nov. 2015.

[11] Kim, Young-ha. "South Korea’s Struggle With Suicide." The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 Apr. 2014. Web. Nov. 2015.