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The Peninsula

Finding a Lifeline in South Korea

Published February 29, 2012
Author: Caryn Fisher
Category: South Korea

By Caryn Fisher

In 2009, a report released by the World Health Organization stated that the suicide rate for South Korea had risen to 31.0 (per 100,000), more than double what it had been only ten years earlier and giving South Korea the second highest suicide rate out of the 107 countries listed by WHO, following only Lithuania. That same year, South Korea also became the country with the highest suicide rate among OECD nations. But why is it that a nation, ranked 12th in the world by the International Monetary Fund for GDP (PPP), has such high suicide rates compared to its neighbors on the ranking (Mexico at 11th with a rate of 4.2, Spain ranked at 13th with a rate of 7.6)? Furthermore, what steps has and should the South Korean government and mental health organizations take to lower the rate in the future?

Source: World Health Organization (

In 2008 and 2009, the large number of suicides, including former president Roh Moo Hyun and actress Choi Jin Shil, shocked the nation. A year later in 2010, a report by Statistics Korea stated that suicide was the leading cause of death among individuals in their teens, 20s, and 30s. That year, the total deaths in South Korea equaled 255,000, up 3 percent from a year earlier, of which suicide was the fourth leading cause of death, falling only behind cancer, stroke (cerebrovascular disease), and heart disease. As of 2009, an average of 40 people a day took their lives.

Though there are many possible factors as to why the rate is so high, some of the top reasons are:  pressure to succeed for young individuals, bullying in schools, and the lack of public acceptance of mental health issues coupled with the notion that Korea is a “shame society.” The first factor, pressure to succeed, is illustrated in many of the news headlines within the past year, particularly one in April 2011 that included four students and one professor at KAIST University. The students, who under University law must maintain a 3.0/4.0 GPA to keep their tuition-free status and who possibly even consider admittance to KAIST as one of their life goals, are falling victim to intense competition with their peers and a resulting depression due to the stress, common among youth in Korea these days. The academic pressures that they feel have led to youth in Korea being ranked as the unhappiest individuals out of a subset of OECD countries, as well as to the 50 percent increase in teen suicides from 2008-2009 and the 202 college students that took their lives in 2009.

In recent news, following the death of a young 13 year old boy in Daegu who committed suicide due to bullying from two classmates, the rise of bullying in schools leading to suicide has also been of great concern. In 2011, 14,939 students asked the Teenage Violence Prevention Center in South Korea for help with bulling issues. Of that group, 520 of them considered committing suicide due to the severity of the problem. One of the main problems is that students cannot rely on their teachers for help in this situation, as many of the teachers and school administrations try to keep the cases of bullying silent.

Additionally, Koreans still fear losing face in society due to mental health problems. Those who do rely on treatment methods such as visiting a psychiatric clinic pay their bills in cash, so that the record of their assistance with the clinic is not on their insurance records. It is also highly uncommon for Koreans to talk openly about emotional problems and the feeling of preserving face for their family is still of high concern. Professor Hwang Sang-min, a professor at Yonsei University, states, “Koreans always want to show their best image to other people,” which explains the desire to give up when the image is not maintained.

To help curb the increasing numbers, the Ministry of Health and Welfare passed a bill in 2011 that will make funding available for more suicide prevention centers nationwide, increasing the 151 community mental health centers, 170 rehabilitation centers, and 56 psychiatric nursing homes that have been established since 1995. Unfortunately, the pre-established mental health clinics are more effective in helping with basic family or marital problems, rather than getting at the root of the problem, depression. Also, though health insurance covers the cost of the sessions, the patient’s government insurance record then shows a “Code F,” deterring individuals from having insurance reimbursement for their bill in exchange for their records indicating they had assistance for mental health.

Another change is that some Koreans are becoming more comfortable with Western psychotherapy and Western depression medicine. The problem with this is that, again, it is not truly addressing the root of the problem and instead is giving an easier way out to those who fear extended talk sessions and the chance that those around them will find out about their visits. Dr. Jin-seng Park, a psychiatrist working in Seoul, states that most patients expect and ask for medication, rather than participate in several sessions of talk therapy. Only about a third of Dr. Park’s patients take the time to participate in therapy, while the other two-thirds rely on medicine.

Some other changes that have been made to prevent suicide in South Korea include increasing the number of cameras along the Han River, increasing the monitoring of suicide hot lines, and increasing the number of volunteers who monitor online bulletin boards or websites related to suicide, as suicide pacts between strangers who meet online is a growing trend.

Overall, although changes have been made, the government should take more active steps in the future to reduce the number of suicides. The Ministry of Health and Welfare is due to look at the suicide prevention and mental health issues again in five years, but if the trend continues the way it has been, it would be more beneficial for them to move up the review. As seen in a recent poll by Ipsos, South Koreans find themselves to be the least happy out of the fifteen countries listed, possibly explaining the high rate for suicide in the country. As Korea continues to become a more prosperous country, the government and society as a whole can work together to address the problems at hand, depression and suicide, in order to not only help in preventing unnecessary deaths but also to help each other to feel happy in the prosperity that the country has built for itself.

Caryn Fisher is the Executive Assistant to the President at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from Craig Nagy’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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