“Suicide is everywhere”, Young-ha Kim declares (Kim 1). “I was having a drink with a friend at a bar in Seoul recently and the young bartender asked us if we thought the weather would permit boats trips the next day. Her brother had killed himself a year ago, she said, and her family was planning to take a boat into the harbor, where they had scattered his ashes, for the anniversary.
Then my old friend told me that our college classmate, who we had all thought died of a heart attack, had actually committed suicide” (Kim 1).In South Korea, there are not many trends with suicide because people of all different ages, genders, and classes are killing themselves at such high rates (Singh 1). Based on a study by Yonsei University, Koreans google suicide related searches an average of 55.2 per month (Yonsei Medical Journal 1). “Suicide is the number one cause of death for people aged 10-30 and the second most common cause of death of those in their 40s (Kim 1). Out of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations, South Korea has the highest suicide rate and it is the only OECD country whose suicide rate has been rising since the 1990s (Singh 1). In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 25th Amendment states that everyone has the right to a good life and all people have the right to be cared for. Despite this, people in South Korea feel desperate enough to take their own lives.
Because we have the right to have a good life, more should be done to prevent these premature deaths.Since WWII, South Korea has changed from a poor, farming-based society to the world’s 13th largest economy. This growth brought along some big changes. Korea started focusing on bettering their human capital to help rebuild. Then Korea experienced an economic crash in 1997, putting thousands out of work (Singh 1). In fear of something like that happening again, the workplace has intensified. Young Han Kim, the author of the novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, wrote in an article, “Now, whenever I hear news that a young person has passed away, suicide is the first possibility that comes to mind,” (Kim 1). South Korea has the highest suicide rates in the world for children ages 10-19 (Singh 1).
Most of these suicides are caused by stress from school. A 17 year old student, Young Hwan Kim stated, “Korean education is like a jungle. There is a lot of competition, you eat and get eaten,” (Sistek 1). In South Korea, students have a school year of 11 months and often spend over 16 hours a day at school and afterschool programs called hagwons (Singh 1). They need to study intensely in order to get into one of the top three universities in the country, the SKY universities; Seoul National University, Korea National, and Yonsei University (Sistek 1). These universities are known for their miniscule acceptance rates.
On the day of the SAT, all flights are cancelled in order not to disturb students taking the test. Police cruisers and ambulances even help students running late with rides to the test locations (Sistek 1).Getting into one of the SKY universities means everything to students. It is believed the university you attend paves the path of what you can do in life and even who you can marry. It determines your future. Family honor is also at stake by which college or university students get accepted into.
Many Koreans practice Buddhism or Confucianism, both of which focus on family (McDonald 1). Children feel indebted to their parents from all the years of raising them. They spend all their lives paying them back, so getting into a great university is a important part of this.Elderly suicides also occur at alarming rates.
South Korea has the highest rates of elderly suicides of the OECD countries (Singh 1). Many of these suicides can be attributed to poverty. Roughly half of Korea’s elderly population lives in poverty (Singh 1). Many retired Koreans have no source of income since the country’s pension system only began in 1988 (Singh 1). They may have no one to rely on either. As Korea is becoming more and more economically advanced, more Koreans are abandoning their elderly parents in the countryside and only occasionally send them money.
Alone, poor, and worrying about the future, South Korea’s elderly commit suicide to stop being a burden on their families.While Koreans are embracing western innovations ranging from smartphones to the Internet to cosmetic surgery, they have not widely accepted Western psychotherapy. “It can sometimes feel as if South Korea, overworked, overstressed and ever anxious, is on the verge of a national nervous breakdown,” Mark McDonald writes, “With a rising divorce rate, students who feel suffocated by academic pressures, a suicide rate among the highest in the world and a macho corporate culture that still encourages blackout drinking sessions after work,” (McDonald 1).
With the connections between suicide and mental illnesses, one would think that people would be trying to get help. The opposite is actually happening. If someone goes to a psychologist in Korea, they know that they’ll be stigmatized for the rest of their life. Talking openly about emotional problems is taboo. Many troubled Koreans who seek help go to private psychiatric clinics and pay their bills in cash so their government-insurance records do not carry the stigma of a “Code F”, signifying someone who has received reimbursement for such care (McDonald 1). Also, it’s not uncommon for new patients to go through a session and be shocked when they find out that they have to pay. They believe that they could go talk with a friend or a pastor and get the same results. Most patients simply ask for, and expect, medication to solve their problems.
About a third of Dr. Park’s patients come for counseling, and the rest rely on medication. Dr. Kim believes that 80 to 90 percent of suicides in Korea are byproducts of depression (McDonald 1). “South Korean society has traditionally been underpinned by Buddhist and Confucian values, which emphasize diligence, stoicism, and modesty.
Individual concerns are secondary. Preserving dignity, or “face”, especially for the family is paramount” (McDonald 1). Other ways Koreans try dealing with mental illnesses and other problems include consulting shamans, outdoor exercise, alcohol, organized religion, the Internet, and travel (McDonald 1). Consulting a shaman is still common among many Koreans, especially when they come down with sadness, an odd illness, or a run of bad luck. In recent years, an estimated 300,000 shamans were ministering to clients (McDonald 1).
More Koreans see fortune tellers than psychiatrists. Fortune tellers and room salons even make more money than psychiatrists. Christian pastoral counseling can also be a support for some patients but this is no substitute for professional therapy. Pastors can try to treat patients themselves, but this can have serious and dangerous complications, even deaths. There is no easy solution for this epidemic. South Korea’s very culture and society is creating and sustaining this problem. They have a high-paced lifestyle where everyone is striving to be the best at everything. Those who feel like it is too much or that they have failed think that death is the solution.
Something needs to change. One strategy the government of Seoul tried was to add some additions to a bridge in Seoul. Mapo Bridge, which cuts across the Han River in Seoul, had so many people throwing themselves over the side to their deaths that it became known as the the bridge of death (Schachter 1). In 2012, a project was initiated to add some new additions to the Mapo Bridge (Kim 1). Panels would light up as people approached the railings, greeting pedestrians with phrases like, “I know it’s been hard for you” and “How are you today?” (Kim 1). Pictures of babies, and even a statue of an elderly man comforting a young man were added. A year later, the suicide rates at Mapo Bridge were six times higher (Kim 1).
Then in 2016, the Seoul government raised the fence on the Mapo Bridge to make it harder for people to try to commit suicide (Lee 1). The “Bridge of Life”, is a start, but more needs to happen. Since suicide is such a taboo subject in South Korea, there should be suicide education so people can be more aware of it and see that it is a serious problem that can be prevented.
Too many Koreans are pushed to their limits that they would prefer death than to continue living. It is difficult for them to receive desperately needed mental health because of the fear of what others will think of them and how it will affect their lives. No one should ever feel like this. We should have the right as humans to have the will to live and have access to resources that will help with that. This is represented by the 30th Amendment in the Universal Document of Human Rights.