South Korea has transformed from one of the poorest nations in the world to one of the fastest growing and most innovative economies in just five decades. It´s children rank as some of the best educated in the world. It has more female golf players in the top 100 than any other country in the world and they own the biggest shopping malls in the world. Life in South Korea seems to be perfect – isn´t it?
Front-page headlines were generated this month after a woman committed suicide during the shoot of a reality show on TV in South Korea. This news reminded me on the fact that in the last year, the nation also led the world in another category – suicides. South Korea has by far the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries with 33 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
I don´t want to live anymore. [2. from the suicide-note of a 29-year-old contestant of a reality show whose name is held secret]
Nowadays, suicide is the leading cause of death among South Koreans in their 20s and 30s, and it is the fourth leading cause of death overall, after cancer, stroke and heart disease.
It is probably not only me who wonders why that is. South Korea has never been so prosperous and wealthy and with a Western view on it, people should be happy and enjoying their lives as we link happiness usually with the amount of money we have to spend on things and activities. But as the GDP more than tripled in two decades, the suicide rate also tripled. [3. Society at a Glance 2014 Highlights: KOREA OECD Social Indicators. (2014, March). Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.oecd.org/korea/OECD-SocietyAtaGlance2014-Highlights-Korea.pdf]
There are a lot of researches and studies about suicides in Asian countries. Main findings of these studies are that suicide and its causes differ from the ones in Western cultures and even among Asian countries are a lot of differences. There are many results on how people commit suicide and where that happens but reasons are hard to investigate as the families are much closed about the topic and also that most countries do not compile statistics or data. Much about these studies is therefore speculation and might not be representative.
Another observation is that different age groups have different manifestations and different reasons. Therefore, researchers group people into three age-groups: Young (15 – 34 years), Middle (35 – 64 years), and Elderly (65+ years). Among the elderly, the suicide rate is even five times higher than in 1990. [4. Elderly suicides in South Korea: Poor spirits | The Economist. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21591211-loneliness-and-poverty-are-killers-poor-spirits]
I don’t want to be a burden on my children. [5. suicide note of an 82-year-old-pensioner who was found dead in his flat]
Suicide is seen by psychologists as one of the most crucial indicators of mental health and well-being. Not only is it linked to individual psychological distress, but more fundamentally, it is a product of social and cultural conditions.[6. http://paa2012.princeton.edu/papers/122581]
If we draw the assumption that there is something going completely wrong in South Korea, what could that be?
Studies focussing on social problems theorize that the problems stem from the rapid economic rise, newfound culture of chronic competition and stigma that asking for help is a sign of personal weakness and ultimately of failure. Korea has a closed social structure in which people cannot express their feelings openly. Depression is regarded as a temporary problem which will go away if the person is strong enough. [7. http://liberalis.usu.edu/2012/summer/making_sense_of_suicide.html]
In South Korea, nobody talks about their feelings or other people’s feelings, winning is the most important thing. Education is competitive in South Korea, finding a good job is competitive, even getting married is competitive. [8. Sun Young Jeon, student and researcher at USU]
The results in a research paper, issued in 2004 by John F. Helliwell, show that low social capital and low levels of trust are associated with higher national suicide rates. [9. John Helliwell, 2007. “Well-Being and Social Capital: Does Suicide Pose a Puzzle?,” Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 81(3), pages 455-496, May.]
Social capital is partly measured by the Better Life Index, published by the OECD. According to the findings, South Korea performs moderately well in overall measures of well-being. Concerning the public sphere, there is only a moderate sense of community which is less than the average. Only 77 % of Koreans think they know someone they could rely on in time of need. [10. http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/countries/korea/]
Young deaths are seen as a cry for help. Critical voices are being raised about South Korea´s educational system, which is blamed for problems with bullying, high stress levels, and the second highest suicide rate among youths. [11. South Korean students wracked with stress – Features – Al Jazeera English. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/12/south-korean-students-wracked-with-stress-201312884628494144.html] Bullying made the headlines earlier this year when a South Korea firm announced that it wants to introduce a “bullying insurance”. [12. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-26080052]
Elderly have the biggest problems with the sudden change of the society. Families were usually an extended self and children were the ones who would care for their parents in old age. Many parents are now left behind, poor, and live in rural ghost towns, as their kids went to live in cities for work and study. A decent social system to support the elderly does not exist yet.
A huge problem why distressed people do not seek help is because the word psychiatry has a very negative connotation that it is seen as a public admission of character failure.
We are unwilling to seek help for depression. We are very afraid of being seen as crazy. [11. Ha Kyooseob, a psychiatrist at Seoul National University College of Medicine and head of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention]
Some municipalities have invented some unconventional schemes to prevent their citizens from suicide. For instance Seoul installed motion-sensor lights for night-time pedestrians on Mapo Bridge – also called Bridge of Death. When the sensors detect a person approaching, messages approved by suicide prevention groups like “how have you been today?” and “What is troubling you?” appear. With these measurements, the number of people jumping from the bridge was reduced by 77 %. [12. South Korea’s LED lighting lowers suicide rates? – SmartPlanet. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/bulletin/south-koreas-led-lighting-lowers-suicide-rates/23154]
Other measurements were the establishment of a 24-hour-helpline, websites that encourage people to kill themselves were shut down and the sale of a pesticide that was a common means of suicide was banned. [13. Financial Times. (n.d.). Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/e3106e28-2f43-11e3-ae87-00144feab7de.html#axzz2xd4C5vXp]
Not being able to talk to someone you trust, the taboo to admit to feeling overwhelmed by stress and the stigma of being seen as crazy if you seek help with depression leads in my opinion to those high suicide rates.
In my opinion there are three corrective actions that are urgently needed. Firstly, to get to the bottom of the problem you need to conduct more research and find out why people have suicidal thoughts. Only if you are sure that you know the reasons, you can set up a plan on how to tackle the problem. Secondly, the government needs to support the elderly that they do not have to live in poverty when their kids do not care for them. Thirdly, changing the culture by informing people and illustrate that it is ok to have negative feelings and how they can be helped. This might encourage them to seek help and educate the next generation that they lose their fear to talk openly which will make a change possible. When looking at the reasons, they are mainly a product of flaws in the governmental and educational system and also in the perception within the society.
Having a look at other countries at what they implemented to solve their problem will only help with some reservations as South Korea´s problem is rather unique; but trying to involve role models speaking about suicide would create awareness drastically and make it possible for the youngsters to discuss this matter. K-Pop stars like Psy would reach more people than any other actions – this has proven right in many countries where music and filmstars opened up to different topics as seen lately with Angelina Jolie who started a discussion about cancer prevention.
As the older generation with its values dies and the younger generation adapts to new values, the problem with suicides might also tone down. As the change of culture is already in progress, it is the right time to push it into a positive direction and proactively shape a new society.