A disconcerting thing is happening at my school on this deep blue Monday morning. The teacher opposite my desk is counseling a student, whom I assume must have threatened to commit suicide. By assumption her condition is the result of a bad grade on her mid-term exam, which ended just last week Friday. I admit that a lot of my Korean de-coding abilities have only about 10% to do with actual language. She is in our office a lot, and often leaves red faced and puffy eyed from crying. The soft crying moans coming from just about a meter and a half away and the teacher making wrist slashing actions with concerned expressions is enough to let me fill in the blanks for myself.
Suicides are a major problem in Korean society. Especially amongst high school students who are under tremendous pressure for good grades in order to get into top level Universities in their parents’ hope to ensure job security. In a largely homogenous society which is geared towards a community-based culture, students are not only the representatives of their families, but their school, their community and their country and with the majority of the population reaching for university education, the competition is tough from the word go. Letting down this group of expectant people results in feelings of shame and often result in suicide.
According to the Yonhap News Agency about 33 Koreans take their lives a day. Even though the majority of these are not high school students, my colleague has cause for concern. Teenage suicides increase during the mid-term exams, according to Tania Campbell from Oh My News. Teachers are well aware of this problem. During a teacher training seminar in Seoul, Korean teachers were asked about this dilemma and the general feeling was in favour of a slightly slacker educational system. However, the government experiences pressure from competitive parents and change is not expected to come fast.
Another evil is the condition of the mental health system. Any form of mental disease is shamed. Korea’s paternalistic culture is largely based on Confucianism. A father has the right to admit his child to a psychiatric institution often based on ridiculous occurrences. I personally have a friend who was admitted to an institution and charged with bipolar disorder based on a conversation the therapist had with her father. What was the cause of his concern? His hormonal teenage daughter locked herself in her room and refused to come out until her father allowed her to study acting at University. She had to wait for years to be reviewed and the diagnosis was finally retracted. Her “record” is now clear after an apology from the therapist, who never assessed her in person. Her case is not an isolated matter. On the other side, many people who do suffer mental illness go untreated due to a fear of being ostracized. These account for 90% of suicides in Korea, and include many high profile suicides.
By 2007 the country’s suicide rate has doubled since 2002 and it’s still growing according to Statistics Korea, which reports 12,858 cases of suicide in 2008 and a further 5% increase in 2009. BBC reports that Korea is committing to implement the changes necessary to combat this tragic situation. Preventative measures include fences on high buildings, the production of non-toxic domestic chemicals, and stricter monitoring of internet websites that provide information on suicide methods (BBC). Seeing as the most popular mode of suicide is by hanging, I am not sure how these methods will improve matters much.
I recently heard a story about someone drinking Pigeon, a popular brand of fabric softener, in a suicide attempt. The punchline of the “joke” is that the whole hospital smelled like a laundromat after doctors pumped his stomach. Humourous as the story may be, it reflects a startling reality. In a Happy Tree Friends kind of way. My doctor-neighbour blames Korea’s loss of religion. Some blame the economic crisis while others blame domestic violence and shifting gender roles.
The hope remains that Korea will follow the example of other countries like Finland, that managed to reduce suicide rates dramatically (BBC). Perhaps Korea’s community with some positive awareness can take preventative care of each other to raise a generation of Koreans that are strong in mind and in heart.