The “Scourge of South Korea”: Stress and Suicide in Korean Society

“Suicide is everywhere,” says South Korean author Young-ha Kim, referring to modern Korean society, in his op-ed for the The New York Times. Countless others have documented what some call “the scourge of South Korea” – the fact that people of all classes, ages, and genders are committing suicide at exceptionally high rates.

South Korea has achieved remarkable growth in the 60 years after WWII. What was once an agrarian, impoverished colony is now the world’s 13th largest economy. The country’s profound economic growth has brought along major social changes. One change has been a sharp increase in the suicide rates among large segments of the population, including adolescents and the elderly. Korea’s suicide rate, attributable to its high-stress society, is among the highest in the world.

Suicide is the fourth most common cause of death in South Korea; on average, 40 people commit suicide every day. South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) nations, which include countries such as Germany, the U.K., and Japan. It is the only OECD country whose suicide rates have increased since the 1990s. For years, social scientists have puzzled over why this economically successful state has such startlingly high suicide rates.

While all the reasons may never be known, research on the topic has provided us with some answers. The South Korean Health and Welfare Ministry estimates that 90% of people who committed suicide in 2016 had a diagnosable psychiatric illness, such as depression or anxiety, conditions often caused by stress. South Korea is known for its high-stress professional and educational environments, in which it is customary to work or study long hours into the night. These customs likely developed from worry about the economy. In 1997, Korea experienced a huge economic crash and thousands of people were out of work. Since then, fear of another such crash recurring has intensified workplace stress. According to the Journal of Royal Society of Medicine, during a period of economic uncertainty, in places where people have easy access to unhealthy coping mechanisms, there are higher rates of mortality from suicide. Studies have shown a correlation between economic stress and physical and emotional well-being. While it is important that people are aware of the economic dangers of another crash and are taking steps to prevent it, South Korea’s work and school cultures are lethally toxic.

Adolescents and the elderly, widely considered vulnerable groups in society, are the most at risk for suicide. South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world for children ages 10-19 and extremely high elderly (60+) suicide rates. For children, most suicides are caused by stress relating to education. Korean children have a school year of 11 months and often spend over 16 hours a day at school and at afterschool programs called hagwons. All this studying is done to get into the top three universities in South Korea, all of which are known for their miniscule acceptance rates. Family prestige and honor are often tied to where children go to university, and many adolescents take their own lives out of that stress. Elderly suicides also occur at an alarmingly high rate – the highest of OECD countries. Many elderly commit suicide due to poverty, and, to a lesser extent, the breakdown of Korea’s traditional family structure. According to the OECD, roughly half of Korea’s elderly population lives in poverty. Many retired South Koreans have no source of income, as the country’s pension system only began in 1988. They may have no one to rely on either; as Korea is becoming more and more economically advanced, more Koreans are abandoning their elderly parents in the countryside and sending them money less frequently. Lonely, poor, and worried about the livelihoods of not only their own but those of their families, many of South Korea’s older people commit suicide so as to not levy a financial burden family members.

South Korea, however, is not unique in its culture of stress. Other countries, including Singapore and Japan, have high-stress work environments but do not face the same high suicide rates that South Korea does. The special combination of factors that has led to this situation includes traditional cultural beliefs and the social stigma around receiving treatment for mental illnesses.

Korea’s traditional beliefs stem from Buddhism and Confucianism, which put a huge emphasis on the importance of family. Korean culture emphasizes diligence, modesty, and stoicism, as well as keeping family honor intact. While these attributes of society may be part of why South Koreans do not seek treatment for mental illness, these societal values and characteristics are not unique to South Korea. Most East Asian societies are similarly focused on family and influenced by Buddhism and Confucianism, so it cannot be claimed that culture alone is responsible for the high suicide rate. Culture, however, is related to is the social stigma around treatment for mental illnesses. Most South Koreans with mental illnesses never see a medical professional because it is considered a thing of shame, as if one is too weak to handle the pressures of life that everyone experiences. Out of the 90% of those who committed suicide due to a mental illness, the Health and Welfare Ministry estimates that only 15% of those people received any form of treatment. Instead, most turn to self medication to solve their problems.

Self medication takes on many forms in Korea; people exercise, use social media, attend religious gatherings, and abuse alcohol. Of these, alcohol abuse is the most common and the deadliest. According to Euromonitor International, South Koreans are the world’s largest consumers of hard liquor, with the average Korean adult taking an average of 14 shots a week. This is especially shocking when compared to the U.S., where the average amount is three shots per week. Heavy drinking in South Korea is directly tied to its culture of hard work – most people justify taking up to 10 shots a night with the need to relax. Alcoholism costs the South Korean over $2bn a year and is the cause of thousands of deaths each year. Roughly 40% of those who attempt suicide do so while drunk. While deadly, alcohol abuse is seen as more socially acceptable than psychiatric visits to treat mental illnesses.

The South Korean government has taken some measures to combat the high suicide rates, but none have been very effective. The legislature revised the Mental Health Act in March 2017, but only really changed the terms under which someone can be involuntarily institutionalized. The Ministry of Gender and Family created recently the National Youth Healing Center, a program that has little to offer other than counseling programs for students. Part of the problem is that South Korea spends an infinitesimal amount of money on improving the mental health of its citizens. In 2016, only $7 million was spent on mental health, and 64% of that money went to hospitals and other mental institutions. Contrast that with Japan, which has a similar problem but has started spending $130 million each year on suicide prevention and awareness. While the solution to a problem is never to throw money at it, Korea needs to make a investment in the welfare of its people or face the economic consequences.

South Korea functions as a counterexample to the prevailing belief that happiness is related to the economic success of a society. As the economy grew, the stress in South Korean society increased, as did the rates of depression and suicide. The takeaway here is that countries must take an active hand in providing for the health of their citizens – both physical and mental. Countries like South Korea are economically but not socially viable, and a country needs to be both in order to be sustainable. South Korea needs to take decisive action to ensure that its citizens are safe from the biggest threat of all: themselves. 

Featured Image Source: ABC News Australia