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South Korea Takes Aim at High Suicide Rate

A fan weeps during the funeral of late South Korean singer Kim Jong-hyun, better known by the stage name Jonghyun, a member of South Korean K-pop group SHINee, at a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.
A fan weeps during the funeral of late South Korean singer Kim Jong-hyun, better known by the stage name Jonghyun, a member of South Korean K-pop group SHINee, at a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017.

South Korea continues to have one of the highest rate of suicide among developed nations, sparking actions plans from the government in Seoul to tackle the issue.

Recent findings from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed South Korea was the second highest in the number of suicides among member nations. South Korea has had that distinction every year since 2007, except in 2010 and 2011, when it ranked number one. This year, Seoul vowed to lower the rate of suicides among its population.

Yang Doo-seok, adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Social Policy at Gachon University, attributed South Korea’s high suicide rates to the country’s success-driven culture following the 1997 Asian financial crisis and asserts present economic conditions also contribute to the trend.

“The recent high unemployment rate among young people has also caused the high suicide rate,” said Yang.

The professor noted South Korean youths appear to disregard life, something he says increases suicide rates.

“Teenage suicide is increasing,” Yang said, “In particular, you can access the contents that encourage self-harm or beautify suicide prevailing in the Internet, Instagram, Youtube videos.”

An Instagram search for the Korean word for “self-harm,” leads to a pop-up screen reading, "Posts with words or tags you're searching for often encourage behavior that can cause harm and even lead to death. If you're going through something difficult, we'd like to help." Users are then given the choice of seeking help or seeing bloody images or individuals who appear to have scars from previous instances of cutting their bodies.

“Getting used to self-harm can lead to one killing themselves,” he said.

However, Mitch Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said there’s just not one precursor to suicide.

“Some people become suicidal after a long period,” he said, “slowly becoming more feeling more trapped and feeling more depressed. But other people might make this decision in a fairly impulsive way after experiencing a pretty severe stressor.”

South Korean government response

The OECD report was compiled using data from 2016 (or newer) and was conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the National Health Insurance Service. It found that 25.8 out of 100,000 South Koreans committed suicide.

Overall the number of suicides among OECD members has been dropping since 1985. However it wasn’t until 2010 that South Korea’s rate began to fall from a high of 33.8 per 100,000 in 2009.

To a large degree, said Yang, South Koreans consider suicide to be an individual’s problem, not a societal one. But “in Korea, suicide is caused by environmental, social, and economic reasons. Therefore, the government, society, and the private sector should cooperate and take measures against it,” he said.

South Korea’s government launched an inter-ministerial action plan at the beginning of this year to lower the suicide rate to 17 per 100,000 by 2022. The measures to achieve the goal were initiated by the Ministry of Welfare and Health and include several other offices, including the Office for Government Policy Coordination, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism; and the Forest Service.

South Korea’s National Suicide Prevention Plan will begin by collecting the opinions of local government officials, experts, and evaluating information international cases.

Utilizing that data, the government will form a network for high-risk groups and build a local welfare and safety support system for those in need. Furthermore, the government intends to provide aftercare to those who attempted to take their own lives.

The government plans to tailor healthcare initiatives based on the age, sex, and socioeconomic status of those needing help.

Once implemented, government officials tell VOA, Seoul will evaluate the outcomes of their plan and make necessary adjustments. In addition, the inter-ministerial officials will consult with local officials and add “complementary measures” as needed to address their needs.

Cyberbullying and suicide

Cyberbullying, like elsewhere, is a problem in South Korea and extends beyond the schoolyard. In South Korea, “mom cafes” are online communities where mothers share information about schools, teachers, and more.

Recently, a kindergarten teacher committed suicide after receiving harassing messages from members of a “mom cafe” group.

An anonymous member of the group alleged the deceased teacher pushed a student on a school trip. The original post did not include the teacher’s name, but other members discovered who the teacher was and posted her personal information online.

After three days of messages from members, the teacher killed herself.

Prinstein explains how social stressors like bullying can lead to suicide.

“Bullying attacks one of the core fundamental needs for humans, and that is a sense of feeling that somebody belongs that they're generally well liked, and they're accepted into a group,” said Pinstein.

Therefore, he said, it can be a “very important and powerful predictor for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, particularly among youth.”

With cyberbullying, Prinstein said the problem can be multiplied because it has a permanence that real-world bullying does not have.

Lee Ju-hyun contributed to this report.