South Korea is truly a fascinating country to live in, work at and write about. Its endless complex layers continue to reveal themselves on a day-to-day basis. One layer that I was astonished to learn about is the suicide epidemic. For nearly a decade, S. Korea has had the highest suicide rate among industrialized nations. From teenagers to senior citizens, around 40 people commit suicide every day (data from 2012). The alarming statistics are merely symptoms of deep-rooted social issues. The biggest problem is that South Korea finds itself trapped between a past of Confucianism ideals and a reality where capitalism and competition reign supreme.
HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?
From the outside looking in, South Korea appears to be overworked, over-stressed and over pressured.
South Koreans start training for competition early on. Students are thrown into intense academic careers to secure a place in a prestigious university, all in hopes to get a high-paying corporate job after graduation. If they are lucky enough to land such a job, they will soon find out that Korean corporate culture demand they work about 14 hour days, and that they partake in the binge drinking sessions after work, to cope with the stress of the job. Once they are ready to commit a long portion of their lives to a company, S. Koreans can focus on finding the perfect spouse, which has to be approved by the family.
And they must juggle their professional and personal lives while adhering to Confucian beliefs, and looking beautiful because in S. Korea good looks easily equal success. The stakes are sky-high because S. Korean society views people that fall behind as failures.
It’s not surprising that a significant amount of the population struggles to cope with the ridiculous standards imposed by society. Suicide is a serious and widespread side effect of living in a hypercompetitive and overwhelmingly stressful environment.
Change, Change, Change
South Korea wasn’t always so ruthlessly competitive. About 50 years ago, the country was almost entirely destroyed after the Korean War. But in a matter of decades, S. Korea managed to recover from the poverty and devastation while establishing itself as an economic powerhouse. It is currently the 3rd largest economy in Asia and the 13th largest in the world.
The incredibly rapid transformation was made possible by its hard-working citizens and the phenomenon became known as the “Miracle of the Han River.” The newfound financial prosperity came with a high price to pay: a system based on vicious competition. Seemingly, the collective psyche of S. Koreans couldn’t keep up with the economic and social shifts. As S. Korea became more democratized, globalized and focused on growing its economy, the suicide rates started to soar. Ironically, the miraculous Han River has become one of the most popular places for S. Koreans to attempt suicide.
Mental Illness Stigma
Unsurprisingly, when the endless rat race of attaining the perfect life doesn’t go well, many Koreans get depressed. According to studies by Hallyum University, 60 percent of people that attempt suicide suffer from depression. The problem arises when the depression goes untreated because there is a widespread stigma about mental illness in South Korea. Many of its citizens refuse to seek medical attention to avoid having records of it.
And if they do go to the doctor, they prefer drugs over psychotherapy and counseling because these services are not common. As Young-Ha Kim, a S. Korean novelist and writer, says, “… Too many people in South Korea have outdated views of psychological illness. Many think that when someone is suicidal he simply lacks a strong will to live; he’s weak. There’s little sympathy or interest in probing below the surface.” The suicide epidemic appears to be rooted on a profound misunderstanding of mental illness.
Beliefs vs. Reality
Spend enough time in S. Korea and it starts to become noticeable that its people are torn between the new and the old. Confucian ideology dictates that the collective needs of the family and community be prioritized over individual needs. South Korea has operated under this belief system for thousands of years but things started to change when industrialization was introduced.
All of a sudden fierce competition in school and the workplace were promoted to achieve financial success, or status. Trying to achieve professional, financial and personal success while keeping in mind the needs of the family is a lot to demand from anyone. South Korea finds itself in an interesting position where the nature of the individualistic economy isn’t consistent with the collectivist philosophy. Simply put, the traditional belief system conflicts with the reality of modern Korean lifestyle.
WHO IS AFFECTED THE MOST?
People of all ages and different backgrounds attempt suicide but the numbers increase dramatically among the elderly. Based on Confucianism, extended families were to live together while the grown children cared for their aging parents. In modern times, however, this traditional social structure has mostly vanished.
The disintegration of the traditional family unit has proved catastrophic for South Korea’s senior citizens. According to a government report in 2011, only 4 of every 10 people over 65 have a public or private pension/retirement savings. With almost half of the elderly living in relative poverty, senior citizens resort to collecting and selling recyclables as a means for survival, despite the fact that they worked tirelessly during their entire lives.
This problem is apparent on a daily basis. Older people with extremely hunched backs spend their days pushing heavy carts and going through trash to collect valuables. It breaks my heart each time I see this but it seems S. Koreans have grown desensitized to the bleak reality. Senior citizens are in this predicament because neither their families nor the state supports them financially.
S. Korea relied on Confucian dynamics for far too long. The country didn’t have a state pension until 1988 and for the elders of today that program was established too late. They don’t qualify for the aid because they were past working age when the system was created.
Perhaps the most depressing fact is that the forgotten older generation of today was the one responsible for launching S. Korea into the modern economic engine it is now.
Even with the state’s welfare program, senior citizens can barely make ends meet, as the paychecks they receive are merely enough for basic living costs. To add insult to injury, the government denies welfare to people whose children are deemed capable of supporting them.
This means that most senior citizens must ask their families or the government for financial aid, or face an impoverished and isolated life on their own. A large amount of them choose to take their lives instead of becoming a financial burden for their families or suffering from poverty.
No wonder the elderly might view suicide as the only way out of their misery.
The government has started to address the problem by implementing water rescue units for the Han River, heavily surveilling its bridges (where people jump from) and the creation of a suicide hotline. However, the public has expressed concern about the government’s efforts as the national budget for suicide services is about $7 million. In contrast, Japan, a country that has also battled soaring suicide rates, spends about $130 million on suicide prevention programs.
South Korea’s government has also received criticism for focusing on the symptom rather than addressing the root causes of the problem: social pressures and a deep misunderstanding of mental illness.
The suicide epidemic faces an unclear future due the cultural ambivalence S. Korea finds itself in. As people are overwhelmed and stressed by daily life, they will continue to view suicide as a feasible way out of their suffering. Until strides are taken towards understanding and properly treating depression, suicide might remain an acute problem for South Korea.