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Suicide in South Korea Case of Too Little, Too Late
Star's recent death by own hand raises issue once again
Tania Campbell (tania79)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2007-02-03 06:36 (KST)   
Suicide is the fourth cause of death in South Korea. A government report released at the end of 2006 stated that South Korea's suicide rate was the highest among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2005. The report highlighted that the high suicide rate is a reflection of changing and conflicting gender roles, economic hardship and domestic violence. In 2005, 26.1 out of every 100,000 South Koreans committed suicide, a dramatic increase from 11.8 people in 1995.

However, this plays down the role of mental illness and other social conditions that significantly contribute to the statistic. The World Health Organization has estimated that 90 percent of all suicide victims have some kind of mental health condition, most commonly depression or substance abuse. This means that if these conditions could be acknowledged and treated, there would be a dramatic decrease in the suicide rate.

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This was highlighted recently by the suicide of Korean actress-turned-singer, Lee Hye-ryeon (also known as Yuni). On Jan. 21, she was found hanging from a door frame by her grandmother. While no one will ever know the exact reasons for her suicide, according to the Chosun Ilbo, her family believes it was due to a combination of work pressure and well-hidden depression (her family believed it to be under control with anti-depressants). This case is reminiscent of the death of famed Korean actress Lee Eun-joo who killed herself nearly two years ago after suffering severe bouts of depression.

Like most Asian nations, South Korea does not have a well developed concept of mental illness, especially as a treatable disease. Certainly, the recovery-based, consumer-driven model that exists in the West has not been implemented here. In addition, there is a lot of stigma attached to various mental disorders, meaning that people are living in hell because they feel they cannot seek the treatment they need in order to cope and eventually recover. Those who are brave enough may very well find themselves locked away in an asylum.

Dr. Daniel Fisher, an American psychiatrist, recently visited South Korea at the invitation of the National Human Rights Commission. His observations gleaned from the trip, which he included on his Web site, are telling: "South Korea is still operating the type of institution-based system seen in the U.S. 40 years ago," he wrote. According to Fisher, people labeled with mental illness in South Korea are treated as an extreme underclass.

He visited Yongin Hospital on the outskirts of Seoul and was shocked by what he saw. The model of psychiatry practiced in South Korea reflects the hierarchy of Confucianism, essentially meaning that the father has the power to admit members of his family as he sees fit -- one wife was admitted for two months for changing her religion; one young man was in for a year for yelling at his father. In addition to fifteen people sharing a room, the hospital carries out ECT without anesthesia which leads to broken bones.

While mental illness is linked with 90 percent of suicides, what about the other 10 percent? This must be contributed solely to social factors. For example, in South Korea, it is intensely competitive to get into a prestigious university. Suicide rates unsurprisingly spike around the time of midterm exams for high school students. There were at least five such suicides reported in 2005. At a public rally to mourn one of these victims and to protest the pressure-cooker conditions forced upon them in high school, 400 students and supporters cheered one student's speech: "We are not studying machines. We are just teenagers."

Suicide is also high among gay men, who are ostracized by society and generally shamed and expelled from their families after coming out. Although they are slowly becoming more accepted in Korean culture (in 2004 the first public same-sex marriage took place), it's no Amsterdam. While no reliable statistics exist on this topic, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence on the Internet that would suggest that suicide among gay men is a significant factor in South Korea's suicide rate.

One man wrote on a gay rights Web site:

I consider myself lucky, though. Between 1997 and 1999, three of my gay friends in South Korea committed suicide. In May 1998, Oh disclosed his homosexuality to his family. They immediately rejected him and expelled him from their home. After living and suffering on the streets for months, and at one point sleeping in an office, Oh killed himself. The other two went to Seoul National University, which is South Korea's Harvard or Yale. One was in law school; the other was a graduate student in biology. Their success in society was "guaranteed." However, when they came to the age of marriage, they both faced a brutal dilemma. Neither wanted to marry. But they also didn't want to disown their families and disappoint their parents. So they chose to kill themselves. One in 1997, the other in 1999. No funerals were held for these three young men: their families considered them "bad" sons..."

In order for there to be a positive difference made in the suicide rate in South Korea, two things need to happen. First, mental illness needs to be acknowledged, the stigma surrounding it decreased and more measures put in place to treat it, making it accessible to the public. Second, the various socio-cultural factors behind the ten percent of suicides which are generally not related to mental illness but more to societal pressure and conflict, need to be considered and change take place. People need to become more accepting of sexual difference. Those officials who set the standards for entrance into university need to learn that teenagers are human beings, not machines. Of course, the causes of mental illness need to be considered as well. Although a complex issue, the tragic suicides of Lee Hye-ryeon and Lee Eun-joo, most likely due to severe depression, beg the question: what causes depression in the first place? Society needs to recover its humanity so that these potential victims of suicide can find theirs, before it's too late.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Tania Campbell

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