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South Korea’s suicide epidemic gets a taste of its own medicine

Posted on 02-20-16 in Depression, Mental Health

South Korea’s suicide epidemic gets a taste of its own medicine

“South Korea is facing a suicide crisis.”

This is an understatement.

In fact, South Korea has quickly emerged as the suicide capital of the developed world and Asia’s most depressed country. After many failed projects and lost lives, they have come up with a pretty bizarre new way to try to combat this situation.

Suicide and depression

Up to 15 percent of clinically depressed individuals die by suicide. According to research by Family Medicine at Hallym University, around 60 percent of people who attempted suicide were battling depression.

Despite such overwhelming statistics, South Korea still maintains obsolete views of mental illness. Many associate suicidal tendencies to simply being weak. There’s little compassion or concern in looking below the surface. It’s also not easy to get therapy for depression in South Korea due to a strong prevalent societal resistance to psychological treatment. Many dread doctors keeping record, especially married women who believed a record of treatment or medication could risk losing custody of their children in the event of a divorce.

According to Kim Eo-su, a professor of psychiatry at Yonsei Severance Hospital, about 1 out of 3 depression patients stops midtreatment. “One of the biggest issues is that many patients think they can overcome depression on their own through a religious life or through exercise,” said Kim.

The suicide nation

The last 30 years witnessed an explosion of the South Korean economy, as employment rose and homelessness went down. Shouldn’t this make South Koreans happy?

Not really. A common theory remains that such rapid influx of wealth exacerbated the social pressure to succeed. When someone didn’t, depression often resulted.

On any day, 42 people commit suicide in South Korea. This means over 15,000 suicides every year. South Korea has maintained the highest suicide rates in the industrialized world and the second highest in the whole world, behind Guyana, for the past eight years.

Suicide is now the number one cause of death for its citizens between the ages of 10 and 30. For people in their 40s, suicide is the second-most common cause of death, after cancer. In 2012, 14,160 people commit suicide, an average of 39 people per day and a 219 percent increase from 6,444 suicides in 2000.

A deeper look into these statistics show men to commit suicide twice as often as women. Children and adolescents cite the stress of living in a hypercompetitive society or pressure over exam results and college admissions as the main reasons for considering suicide. Middle-aged South Koreans succumb to anxiety over personal economic problems, whereas suicide among the elderly is mostly due to isolation as a result of fragmented family units.

The “Near Death” movement

In order to battle this puzzling dilemma, a peculiar movement has emerged, giving people a taste of death and hoping that it will restore their will to live.

Known as the “Well Dying” or “Near Death” movement, the program involves “fake funeral” services. The founder Kim Ki-ho explains problems as a part of life to be accepted. Clients are then made to write their own eulogies, sign fake wills, hold up their fake obituaries and given mock funeral services.

They then climb inside a coffin and meditate for half an hour. The coffins are bigger than usual and contain an air hole to avoid suffocation. The students lie down in their coffins before being sealed in and left alone in the dark inside their coffins for at least 10 minutes, taking time to reflect on their lives from an outside perspective.

Among the clients are teenagers who are unable to cope with school pressure, bored parents who find themselves useless after their children left home, and the elderly who feel like a financial burden on their families.

Students wake up and emerge from their coffins feeling “refreshed” and “liberated” from their troubles. Many break down or feel traumatized. The idea is to consider the “collateral damage” of death, to think of the pain their relatives experience left behind and consider the reasonableness of their suicide.

Kim estimates a surprising 300 clients per month, which adds up to about 50,000 over the last decade.

A shifting perspective

A positive shift is in progress at home. In 2013, Busan became the first city in South Korea to initiate monitoring people at high risk for suicide. Psychiatric specialists began focusing on the mental environment of people who committed suicide by conducting in-depth interviews of their survivors. Busan follows the example of Finland, where the authorities executed a similar system in 1992, when that nation’s suicide rate was among the highest in the world. They managed to reduce suicides by 40 percent.

Following Busan, Incheon set up a comprehensive project for suicide prevention with the goal of reducing the suicide rate by 20 percent.

Nationally, the government is also starting to focus on the problem. More effort is required, though. The total national budget for suicide services is nearly $7 million. Comparatively, Japan spends more than $130 million on suicide programs and has witnessed significant results.

Lately, South Korea’s education ministry declared plans for a smart phone app designed to screen students’ social media posts, messages and web searches for indications to suicide.

Ultimately, it is important to tackle the mindset of susceptible individuals. As Kim Ki-ho sums up, ‘You have seen what death feels like, you are alive, and you must fight!’

Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider, devoted to the provision of evidence-based treatment for substance abuse disorders and mental illnesses. We aim to see our patients not just succeed in treatment but thrive in their daily lives as well. If you or a loved one is currently struggling to regain control of your life, help is just a phone call away.

About the author

Sana Ahmed is a staff writer for Sovereign Health Group. A journalist and social media savvy content developer with extensive research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana has previously worked as an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster. She writes to share the amazing developments from the mental health world and unsuccessfully attempts to diagnose her friends and family. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at