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Mental Health System Fails Korean Actress
Lee Eun Ju was a star. Her suicide has shown the nation how untreated depression can end tragically
Kim Yu Min (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2005-02-27 18:56 (KST)   
Lee Eun Ju walks the red carpet at an awards ceremony in Seoul, last November.
©2005 Kwon W.S.
Actress Lee Eun Ju, who hanged herself last week at the age of 25, seemed to have everything to live for -- both beauty and a successful career.

The star of such hit movies as "Taegukgi" and "Bungee Jumping of Their Own" had suffered bouts of insomnia and depression and went to one session with a psychiatrist at a local hospital. She left her family, friends and fans wondering how her mental health issues could have come to such a tragic result.

Seoul National University Hospital in Bundang, Gyeonggi province, announced in a statement that she had visited its psychiatric section on Feb. 3 and was diagnosed as suffering from depression. She was scheduled for a follow-up visit but did not keep the appointment, a hospital official said.

Lee's brother told reporters that she had fought serious insomnia after controversy erupted over the explicit sex scenes in her last film "Scarlet Letter."

"I wanted to make money. Now, I am no longer in a situation to do that," she wrote in a letter that reflected her sense of guilt. "Nobody can understand this feeling."

Fewer than 1,000 professional psychologists practice in South Korea. This figure includes 400 clinical psychologists and 500 counselors, far short of the number needed.

"Western people have treatments and support from their psychologists and psychiatrists, which Koreans do not even know where to get," said Lee Sang Sun, a clinical psychologist and Ph.D. at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"More ironically, Koreans should be both liberal to be young and conservative to be hired by the older generation, which is difficult to deal with especially for those who are ambitious," Dr. Lee explained, referring to Lee's dilemma at having consented to the controversial sex scenes.

Dr. Lee said that Korea's extremely competitive society demands that young people stand on their own feet, but added that emotional connections between siblings or relatives in an extended family -- the conventional family support system -- are deteriorating.

Stigma, Shame and Psychosis

Another problem is the way people look at psychology. Koreans regard it as a virtue to hide their troubles and feelings, and are ashamed to go to someone to talk about their psychological problems, or even mere concerns.

Though many Western people are frank about going to a psychiatrist, Koreans stigmatize those receiving this kind of treatment and discriminate against them at work or social gatherings.

"It is highly recommended to first see psychologists if you are reluctant to see psychiatrists," explained Dr. Lee. "Just by telling your story to someone who is carefully listening helps release mental tension and find solutions."

Lee Eun Ju's case reflects the psychosis of Korean society. Here was a young, successful woman who exuded the traditional delicate image of Korean women -- and the color red. Red is the color of passion. It is the color of the devil. It is the color of spicy food -- a sense of "pain." This concept is deeply ingrained in the Korean mind.

Koreans have a unique emotion called "hahn" -- an oppressed feeling of sorrow. Koreans are deeply emotional, even though they hardly ever get to release their pent up passions. We may say that Koreans have deep sorrow, passion, and pain, which they experience individually but suppress in their group-oriented lives.

Though Koreans are rapidly embracing Western culture, individualism, freedom, and self-fulfillment, the face under the Western mask is still Korean.

They still follow the rules of the founders of their society and do not want to stand too far outside the group. There is no buffer between these two conflicting sides of their psyches.

Lee Eun Ju could have survived against all obstacles if she had found an outlet for her emotions. Then she would not have been impelled to write, "Nobody can understand this feeling."

Public debate, recognition of the need for psychological support systems and governmental support for mental health programs could be Lee's positive legacy for Korean society.
Kim Yu Min is a graduate student of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul. She has worked as a freelancer for The New York Times and The New Yorker, among other international publications.
©2005 OhmyNews

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