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The Peninsula

Ongoing Struggle to Address Mental Health

Published August 5, 2020
Author: Korea View
Category: South Korea

What Happened

  • On July 22, the Ministry of Health and Welfare underscored findings that South Korea’s life expectancy rate (82.7) was above the OECD average (80.7).
  • However, the OECD survey also found that fewer Koreans felt healthy (32%) compared to the OECD average (67.9%). This stood in contrast to results from the United States where 87.9% of people felt healthier despite higher morbidity and lower life expectancy (78.7).
  • These survey results point to a quandary in South Korea’s health policy as the country enjoys good outcomes (160.1 cancer deaths per 10,000 vs. OECD average of 195.8) but negative public responses.

Implications: The gap between health outcomes and public sentiment may point to South Korea’s underinvestment in mental health. Notably, the country still suffers from a high suicide rate (23 per 100,000) that stands in stark contrast with other OECD member countries with lower health outcomes. For example, 4.3 in every 100,000 people commit suicide per year in the United States. While this represents a major improvement from 2014 when these figures stood at 29.1 per 100,000, South Korean government statistics released in 2017 found that at least 1 in 4 Koreans experience a mental disorder at least once in their life, but only 1 in 10 of affected people pursue professional help.

Context: South Korean societal norms make it difficult for people suffering from mental and emotional stress to seek help. There are fears that search for treatment might place a scarlet letter on not only one’s public image, but also the reputation of their family and broader social circles. Adding to this challenge, there perception that mental illness and violent crimes are closely tied – a consequence of Korean courts placing a spotlight on psychological illness as a motivating factor behind dramatic acts of violence.

This briefing comes from Korea View, a weekly newsletter published by the Korea Economic Institute. Korea View aims to cover developments that reveal trends on the Korean Peninsula but receive little attention in the United States. If you would like to sign up, please find the online form here.

Korea View was edited by Yong Kwon with the help of James Constant and Sonia Kim. Picture from flickr user YJ-Lee

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