Thursday, June 3, 2010

Too many suicides

By Yoon Sung-min

Over the past few years in Korea, we have seen an increasing number of suicides among celebrities. Among such recent cases, we were saddened to hear that actor Choi Jin-young ended his short life with heartbreaking tragedy. He followed the same fate that his beloved sister, Choi Jin-sil went on to do. In recent years, we have been shocked by countless suicides by actors, actresses and singers, as well as ordinary well-do-to citizens. Indeed, these cases are warning us about the ever increasing suicide pandemic in the country.

Korea's suicide rate is ranked the highest among OECD countries. A Ministry of Health and Welfare report released in 2008 showed that there were 12,858 suicides. This entails that an average of 35 individuals took their lives daily. This far outnumbers that of other advanced countries.

What is responsible for this pandemic? Throughout history, Koreans have shown a great deal of resiliency over wars, poverty, natural disasters and other life challenges. Ironically, Koreans are now living in an unhappy state in one of the most affluent and safest times in its entire 5,000-year history.

I argue that Koreans are not taking care of their emotional well-being. In this fiercely competitive society, we strive for success in education, employment and financial stability. While materialism is solely worshipped and pursued, non-materialistic values are easily neglected and ignored. From the early years of our lives, we are driven to success while not defining the real meaning of success. In the meantime, our mental health deteriorates.

We know that more Koreans take their physical health very seriously since this is widely believed to be a core element of happiness and success. Parks and sports facilities are packed with healthy and/or already attractive body-obsessed exercisers. Despite this, mental health is not taken seriously. This neglect could harm not only one's emotional health but also their physical health since these two are interconnected.

When it comes to the major cause of suicide, depression is one of the culprits. As mentioned in the series of suicides among celebrities, mental health issues are mainly responsible. Koreans barely seek mental health treatment such as psychotherapy and medication. Although many mental health problems are preventable and curable, only a few affected find the courage to go and see a psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professionals. This conscious or unconscious resistance is triggered by the stigma attached to mental health issues as well as by the presence of discrimination. This is an obstacle to those who are mentally ill in our society.

To make matters worse, there is constantly a great deal of gossip and rumors surrounding celebrities. So much so that they may be unable to reveal their mental health problems and seek professional help. They may resort to self medication, alcohol, drugs or other prescriptions that can put them at a higher risk of suicide.

It is interesting to note that Korean Americans living abroad are not free from suicide. A case in point: On December 31, 2009, suicide problems in the ethnic Korean community of the New York metropolitan area were reported in the New York Times. I was interviewed by the reporter writing that article. Living in the Unites States, I was curious to observe that Korean Americans have higher suicide rates than their other ethnic counterparts. This indicates that there is something more significant than a general description of suicide. There appears to be a core beliefs system embedded in most Korean's psychic schema.

To briefly describe these core beliefs, one must have an inflexible and dysfunctional set of dogmatic principles. One of these is that many Koreans feel trapped from success driven ideals, due to competitive and social norms. These are beliefs which suppress flexibility in the presence of failure. Even though there are many alternatives and options to respond to, it is not second nature to think about seeking help.

Is suicide preventable? Yes, as long as we become friendly toward failures and learn to step down, as well as move up the social ladder. It is also preventable by providing effective measures including awareness education, public campaigns, suicide hotlines and suicide prevention policies.

More importantly, my wish for Korea and Korean Americans is to strongly urge and consider our emotional well-being. The stigma toward mental health and services should be eliminated immediately. Physical health must be on par with emotional health. Now is the time to take these preventive measures towards foreseeable suicides.

The Koreatimes, 05-10-2010

Another Victim of Irresponsible Action

By Yoon Sung-min

Recently, a 13-year old girl, soon-to-be a middle school student was found dead in a water tank on top of a house in a neighborhood of Busan. While she was registered missing for about 10 days, we all hoped that nothing bad would happen to her, such as kidnapping, relentless rape and/or death. These thoughts came in vain. Yes, this is another case that a child is abducted and found dead after being raped by a sexual perpetrator.

In my previous article in The Korea Times, I pointed out that child abuse and neglect is one of the most problematic social issues in South Korea. Children are not properly protected due to lack of adequate laws and services. Since the last heinous rape incident, which an 8-year-old girl was relentlessly raped in a restroom, South Korea drastically appeared poised toward symbolic actions to revamp laws and regulations to protect children from such crime and abuse. However, I have constantly worried that this is not persisting and not enough.

In fact, this girl's life could have been saved if responsible parties had taken appropriate and sufficient measures to secure our children from the hands of sexual transgressors. The suspect, Kim Kil-tae, over the past years was arrested and jailed many times for sexual crimes. He was released from prison in 2008. Each time his actions became worse and crueler, his sentences were lowered for some reason. (Surprisingly, we don't know why. I feel his prison sentences should have been elevated.) A newly enacted law in 2008 requires sex offenders to wear electric tracking devices. This law was not applicable to the suspect of this case since his crimes were committed before the new law took effect. This law should have included his past felonies. Therefore, this is real nonsense.

Although sex offenders' identification and registry is accessible to the public and perpetrators are required to wear some type of tracking device, we would still be unable to prevent similar attacks on children committed by first time offenders. In order to protect our children effectively, South Korea needs to adopt comprehensive child protection laws and regulations, as well as preventive services and programs.

In the United States, like anywhere else, children are not totally free from such sexual and homicidal crimes. However, the Busan girl's case could have been prevented here for the following reasons.

First, the suspect would still be serving his prison term. In the United States, crimes against children, especially sexual acts and/or violence, most likely carry a maximum federal sentence depending on the jurisdiction. There is no chance for these suspects to walk the streets looking for the next potential victims.

Secondly, if released, this suspect would have been registered, tracked and monitored by electronic tracking devices. The suspect would register his presence in the local community, and his residency would be restricted. In some states, he would be confined to a mental health institution after he completed his sentence. These measures would prevent him from committing any future crimes.

Lastly, this girl would not have been going out alone due to our strong child abuse and neglect laws. It is a crime for a parent or legal guardian to leave a child unsupervised, even for a short period of time. Although there is no legal age, any child 13 years of age or younger should be accompanied by a responsible adult. In South Korea, I was very surprised to see that children even as young as 6 go unaccompanied to a store or beauty salon in an apartment complex.

Once again, we watch and see a mother weep for her daughter while others look with pity and sorrow. Given our strong stance on child abuse, neglect and sexual crimes, these measures should be considered the very minimum so that we can protect our children properly. This isn't the time to cry and regret ― rather a time to reflect and take swift actions on policy and legislations.

The Koreatimes, 03-14-2010

Helping Kids Cope With Crisis

By Yoon Sung-min

The ongoing global economic crisis can be stressful and fearful for children. The sullen moods of economic depression experienced by adults can be easily transmitted to our children, who are much more vulnerable toward emotional stress and fear than grown-ups. Adults are inclined not to reveal bad news to their children out of an assumption that it is better for them not to be exposed to bad things.

However, this is not realistic. By sidetracking, children can get to know what is currently happening through the media, by hearing from their peers in a classroom setting, or a playground. Therefore, parents and teachers need to help children understand what is actually happening and cope with their emotional reactions to prevent a further dysfunctional impact on their lives.

For the last two weeks, my clinic has shown an alarming number of children who have presented fear- and anxiety-related symptoms to this economic crisis faced by their families. These children are unable to fully verbalize what they feel and think due to the fact that their expressive language development is not yet complete.

Instead, their feelings and thought are expressed in the form of various psychological and somatic symptoms. Children in crisis may show agitation, social withdrawal, a clinging to adults, sleeping difficulties and have nightmares. They may also feel low self-esteem, confusion, helplessness, anger and suicidal ideation.

In order to help children cope in this economic crisis, it is more desirable for adults to be sincere and honest because most fears and anxieties are triggered by misconception and misinterpretation in cognitive processing. The confusion and uncertainty could lead to cognitive mal-adaptation, which results in fear and anxiety with subsequent physical and behavioral symptoms. Therefore, we need to help children understand what is exactly happening and what they should expect from the economic crisis. To do so, we need to learn some helping strategies.

The U.S. National Association of School Psychologists recently published tips for parents and teachers who need to help children cope during an economic crisis.

First, be assuring. Adults need to acknowledge that economic challenges are unnerving. The likelihood is that you and your children will be resilient. Second, acknowledge and normalize their feelings. It is important for children to understand that negative feelings are normal and expected. This allows them to express themselves safely. Third, maintain a normal routine. Although faced with crisis, sticking to a regular schedule can be reassuring and help promote both physical and psychological health. Fourth, spend time as a family. Sharing enjoyable activities with parents will benefit children in reinforcing their sense of stability and normalcy. Fifth, be optimistic. Even if the economic situations worsen, most people will be fine and resilient. It is important for adults to make children learn not to give up and stand for hope. Last but not least, discuss the economic crisis and prepare resolutions. Children can then use it as a learning opportunity in their future.

In sum, children are much more vulnerable to crisis. Therefore, preparation and preventive efforts are needed to protect them from anxiety and fear triggered by the uncertainty of such an event. We should not just resort to hiding the truth in the closet.

To the contrary, it's better to be open with them. This way, it will help children understand the difficulties and help them feel safe and confident. By doing so, children will learn to handle obstacles in the future. A crisis can turn out to be a valuable learning opportunity for them.

The Koreatimes, 5/4/2009

Crying Out for Protection of Children

By Yoon Sung-min

For several days, I have been infuriated and troubled by the crime committed by Cho Doo-soon, which shocked all Koreans, whether living in South Korea or not.

As a clinician treating child victims and a father of a daughter, I was speechless and shocked to hear this news from Korean Internet sites. What made me speechless was that an eight-year-old girl was relentlessly raped by a worthless pedophile who was not regretful at all.

What is even more heartbreaking is that the young innocent girl will be afflicted with permanent disability as well as tremendous emotional trauma. Incredibly, he was sentenced to only 12 years in jail for his heinous act. This has invoked extreme rage and frustration among ordinary Korean citizens.

Whenever similar crimes happened in the past, we were given a lot of suggestions to protect our children from being victimized by various crimes. At this point in time, we did not believe that our children's lives were much safer than before. This is mainly due to the fact that the suggestions disappeared within several months while tangible changes were not made quickly enough to punish sex offenders of children and to help our children live safely. Most of the blame goes to policy makers and the meager child protection laws and regulations.

Not long ago, when two girls were raped and killed by a psychopathic rapist in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province, I wrote a column titled ``What if They Lived in the United States," which ran in a Korean newspaper. In it, I suggested several changes for the child protection system.

Although the article and suggestions were posted on the government Web site Shinmoongo, I have not heard from any responsible parties regarding the status of my suggestion. All I received was a simple e-mail, confirming that my case was submitted.

None of my suggestions have been implemented and our children are still in danger. Since pedophiles are everywhere targeting young girls and boys, our children cannot be safe from rape crimes unless proper prevention and protection systems are established along with harsh punishments for those crimes.

The other day, I was invited to a small party thrown by a friend who is an attorney. In the middle of our conversation, he explained that the value of his house is much lower than the ones in surrounding communities. His gorgeous $740,000 house could be valued between $800,000 and $900,000 in adjacent neighborhoods. The reason for this discrepancy is that a sex perpetrator resides at a house several blocks away from my friend's house. In the United States, we can check a sex offender registry database that provides information to residents about sex offenders who live or work in our neighborhoods.

This law, known as Megan's Law, which was passed in 1996, is designed to protect children from being a victim of a sexual offense. A convicted sex offender must register as such upon release from incarceration and continue to do so during the rest of his life.

On such Internet registries, we can find sex offenders by last name, street, city, zip code, and state with just a few clicks of the mouse. Electric GPS devices are also required for some sex offenders. Any sexual acts against minor children are strictly prohibited and punishable with long jail sentences. The 12-year sentence for Cho would be considered nonsense in the United States.

The child welfare system is well established in the United States. A case in point: In New York State, Child Protective Services prevent all minor children from being alone without parental supervision. Parents, custodians, legal guardians and/or other responsible adults must accompany all young children, especially those under 12 years old. A violation of this can lead to an immediate freeze of parental rights, foster care placement, mandatory parental counseling, or criminal charges. This helps minor children to be protected from potential risks from sex offenders or other crime perpetrators.

It is a real tragedy and shame to hear about another situation where a rapist such as Cho commits a crime in South Korea, which has been proudly regarded as one of the G20 countries. I argue that South Korea must protect minors in order to proclaim itself as an advanced country.

Nowhere in advanced countries are children so easily neglected or abused. None of the laws and regulations of such countries are filled with loopholes allowing sex offenders and crime perpetrators to get away from their responsibilities.

The Koreatimes, 10-12-2009

Recovering Value of Family

By Yoon Sung-min

In a Father's day speech at a church in Chicago's South Side, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about the value of family. He stated that ``of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important."

By introducing his personal experiences with his parents and his two daughters, he emphasized the roles of parents in shaping good lives for their children and allows us to recognize the strong value of family in our lives.

Throughout human history, no one can deny the fact that the concept of family has been a basic but important social system for all of humankind. We are provided with comfort and rest through family. Like a fortress, a family protects us from outside dangers. Family is not conditional or calculating.

This is a prominent difference between the system of family and the other systems. The principle of success does not work within the family, but rather outside. Whether we succeed or not, we are just accepted as children or parents. Although society rejects a failure, a wholesome family embraces him or her. This is what we call family.

Surprisingly, family can easily be a ground for hatred and/or dispute. It seems that both love and hatred stems from the same origin. Family members should accept and love each other. On the contrary, they can also hate or hurt each other. Lamentably, a family can ignore each other while giving up both love and hatred.

Generally speaking, the opposite word of love is not hatred but, rather, ignorance. On the hatred level, we still hold interests and expectations. However on being ignorant, no one hates or expects anything from each other. We just live our lives like strangers, while not being troubled with one another. This is far from conciliation and generosity. Ignorance may be a defense mechanism to protect the ego from anger and despair. Otherwise, the ego is unable to tolerate such pains and wounds.

Prevention is the best prescriptive measure to protect us from either hatred or ignorance. We should do something to save our family: endeavor and sacrifice. To attempt an endeavor, and make a sacrifice, communication is placed as a top priority. Communication has a similar function, just like blood is to our relationship.

As the body needs blood for maintaining life, relationships require communication. In any relationship, problematic communication results in its death. We misunderstand communication as giving orders or to command. This is not clear. Experts define communication as listening to others with nonjudgmental attitudes and genuine empathy.

On the other hand, in order to save our relationships, we should be equipped with concession and patience. Concession is the action of willingly conceding ourselves for other's benefits. Patience is to put up with others' faults. These two virtues are the best antidotes to prevent family from breeding hatred and ignorance. These are achievable with our efforts. Hatred comes from greed while ignorance stems from impatience.

A family's role serves as a testing ground for building good character. How we talk and behave within the family is presented to the outside world. Furthermore, we should embrace our family members who have gotten hurt and failed outside.

Family should adapt a so-called role of a ``field hospital" where there is a healing and comforting presence to other family members. If we are not cured properly or even wounded by the family, we are unable to work or fight in the real world.

I argue that we rekindle the values of family at this critical moment in time. We have the key to open the door either to heaven or to hell. The path of our family relies upon this determination. The choice is ours.

The Koreatimes, 07-24-2009