Thirty-six Koreans commit suicide every day. That translates into one death every 40 minutes.
But that has long ceased to be news here. Korea has held the title of “suicide nation” among OECD countries. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare Tuesday, about 13,000 people ended their lives in 2016, including 1,900 individuals in their 30s, 2,600 in their 40s, and 2,700 in their 50s.
About 3,500 people in their 60s and 70s also ended their lives, making the elderly suicide rate twice that of the general population and three times the average elderly suicide rate of OECD countries.
Korean men also committed more suicides than women – 2.4 times more, to be exact.
The problem has become so severe that the government finally announced countermeasures this year to lower that rate to 17 suicides out of 100,000 people by 2022. With the economic and social costs of suicides amounting to 6.5 trillion won ($6 billion), the health ministry has established a full-fledged division responsible for setting up and implementing a national “action plan” for suicide prevention.
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The ministry said it would do so by fostering suicide prevention professionals and giving out free depression check-ups, but it seems to be missing the cause of suicides: a culture that doesn’t acknowledge mental illness.
That is, suicides uncover a more profound and unsettling truth of Korean society: Koreans can’t be mentally ill. The stigma surrounding mental illness is so strong that saying “I struggle with a mental health issue" is equal to saying, “Please ridicule and ostracize me.” This is something very few people, even the mentally sick, would willingly say. The ridicule that follows a mental health diagnosis often stems from the fact that people are mostly unfamiliar with, afraid of or downright repulsed by the idea of mental illness.
Combined with prolonged economic hardship, cutthroat competition and a culture where honesty is often punished and being different is unacceptable, people are unable to or refuse to admit that they have physical or mental problems.
And the data shows how many people have ended their lives over what are run-of-the-mill, ordinary life problems. People under 30 were more likely to end their lives due to mental health issues. Those in their 40s and 50s commit suicide due to economic hardship, and the elderly struggle with physical illness.
Mental health issues, economic hardship, and physical illnesses may not be death sentences in other parts of the world, but they may be in Korean culture that heavily emphasizes how they look to others -- as evidenced by Seoul being the “capital of plastic surgery” -- that doesn’t let people just be themselves.
That may also explain why Koreans are dying rather than getting treatment for mental health issues. People are relying on other substances such as alcohol, cigarettes, games, or porn to deal with problems. Korea has one of the highest liquor consumption rates in the world, and one of the lowest antidepressants uses among OECD countries.
Data from the health ministry also shows that the most significant cause of suicides, or 40 percent, was due to mental illness. Next up were economic reasons with 23 percent, physical illness with 20 percent, and family issues with 10 percent.
Overall, the suicide culture stems partly from people unable to or refusing to admit that they have setbacks in life. A society that ridicules people who are poor, lonely, or sick compounds the problem. This is a vicious cycle that has driven up the suicide rate.
Here, education would play a prominent role -- raise mental health awareness, teach people that it’s okay to be sick and let them be. Then educate them on the importance of treatment. Finally, make sure they have time and money for treatment. The economy can’t be fixed in one stroke. Then, getting people treated for their mental illness is probably the most cost-effective method to decrease the suicide rate.
People are dying because they cannot admit that they need help. Let’s change that.