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