South Korea's efforts to curb its alarming suicide rate are being undermined by a deep-rooted belief that seeking help for mental problems leads to social and professional exclusion, health experts say.
Suicide, fuelled by an intense pressure for academic and career achievement, has become a perennial blight on a country whose rapid economic development has otherwise raised living standards and encouraged social mobility.
Figures released by the Health Ministry earlier this month showed South Korea's 2009 suicide rate of 33.8 people per 100 000 was the highest among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Hungary was a distant second with a rate of 23.3, followed by Japan with 22.2.
The figure for South Korea equates to nearly 50 suicides a day and shows a sharp increase from 2000 when the incidence of suicide was 13.6 people per 100 000.
"This is a very stressful society where worldly success weighs too heavily on people's mentality," said psychiatrist Lee Dong-Woo, spokesman of the Korea Neuro-Psychiatric Association.
"As a side-effect from the country's economic success, pressure to succeed in schools and jobs has intensified to an intolerable degree," Lee said.
The government has taken some steps to address the problem, including short-term preventive measures like placing CCTV cameras on bridges over Seoul's Han River and monitoring websites for material encouraging suicides.
A law implemented in March to foster a "life-respecting culture" offered longer-term measures, including a nationwide survey, a government-run 24-hour emergency call service and a national network of suicide prevention centres.
But both health officials and experts acknowledge that increased access to counselling has only a limited impact in a culture that traditionally emphasises the virtues of stoicism and self-reliance.
"Koreans are highly reluctant to talk openly about mental health problems for fear of being socially stigmatized and discriminated against at work," said Lee Jung-Kyu, a deputy director in the Health Ministry.
For every 100 Koreans diagnosed with mental health problems, only 15% seek help from experts, compared with 35%-40% in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Lee said.
"This is a great problem for us in addressing this issue," he added.
Fear of "whispering voices"
National health insurance covers psychiatric counselling, but people are frightened off by the accompanying "Code F" - indicating mental health problems - that would show up on their government health record.
"Many Koreans are afraid of whispering voices behind their backs," said Kim Sung-Il of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention, explaining why Koreans are reluctant to visit mental health clinics.
"They also fear they might have problems in buying insurance policies and claiming insurance," Kim said.
According to government data, suicide is the single largest cause of death among young Koreans, with 13 out of every 100 000 people aged between 15 and 24 committing suicide in 2010.
Even more worrying, in what is one of the world's most rapidly aging societies, is the sharp surge in suicides among the elderly.
The suicide rate among Koreans aged 65 or older in 2009 was 72 people for every 100 000, up from an already alarming 42.2 in 2001.
South Korea provides little in the way of a social security safety net for its elderly population, with the burden of care traditionally falling on their children or other members of the extended family.
But shrinking family sizes mean that many retirees are left to fend for themselves, with little or no support.
"The traditional social fabric has been frayed too fast over too short a period," said psychology professor Hwang Sang-Min.
"As the country has been losing its family-oriented value system, the suicide and divorce rates have increased rapidly," Hwang said.
Lee of the Korea Neuro-Psychiatric Association stressed the need to strengthen social safety nets for the elderly and to change the pervading mindset - among all ages - that sees mental illness as a weakness rather than a disease.
"We need to make them believe there will be second chances for them down the road," Lee said.
(AFP, September 2012)