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South Korea's soaring suicide rates pinned on pandemic

September 15, 2020

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, falling incomes, worsening fears about jobs and prolonged social distancing that is anathema to many South Koreans, the nation appears to be slipping into a crisis of mental health.

Image: Imago-Images/Panthermedia/A. Guillem

Government statistics show that the number of people in South Korea who deliberately harmed themselves in the first half of 2020 soared nearly 36% on the same period last year. A record 595,724 people have been treated for depression, up 5.8% on the first six months of 2019, while suicide rates have also risen.

Cases of suicide among women in their late teens and 20s are of particular concern, with 1,924 deaths in this age group in the first half of the year — an increase of more than 7% on last year's figure. Experts also point out that the statistics do not record the number of attempted suicides.

"The biggest worry that I hear about now, the biggest insecurity is about people's futures at this difficult time," said Dr. Park Chanmin, founder of the Seoul Central Mental Health Clinic.

Read more: South Korea struggling to control resurgence of coronavirus

Pandemic fears

"Since the start of the pandemic, people have become more and more worried about their jobs, they are seeing their incomes falling, and that is having an impact on their day-to-day lives," he told DW. "This is a trend that appears to be emerging."

Experts point out that suicide among young women was up an alarming 17.9% in April, the month when the pandemic was raging through South Korean society. Schools and universities were shut down, companies were attempting to arrange for employees to work from home, firms were going under, and opportunities to go out with friends or family for meals or drinks simply vanished due to the virus.

"Social distancing in Korea is slightly different to other countries, but there is no doubt that it has led to higher levels of stress in people because the places they can go out and meet other people have been severely restricted," Park explained.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, women experience suicidal thoughts 1.5 times more frequently than men; around 60% of the people admitted to emergency rooms after attempting suicide last year were women.

Read more: Coronavirus triggers mental health crisis in India

In the first six months after coronavirus struck, Seoul women in their 20s attempted suicide nearly five times more frequently than any other demographic, a city official told The Korea Herald.

"Something very alarming is happening here," the official said. "As a society, we must pay more attention to this."

'Social disaster'

It's a similar situation with cases of self-harming, with opposition politician Lee Eun-ju, of the Justice Party, calling on the government to do more.

Social distancing and self-isolation protocols imposed due to the pandemic have caused mental distress, she said, and the situation should be considered a "social disaster" rather than merely a question of an individual being ill.

"The government should introduce measures and be prepared to provide treatment,” she told DW.

"In particular, for the young and low-income families, it is necessary to provide a system that is easy for them to access, including counseling and treatment support, as well as lowering the threshold for medical consultations."

Lee has proposed the creation of a team that will be able to draw up tailored support programs for young people, in addition to the Central Disaster Psychological Recovery Support Group that was set up by the government on July 30.

Read more: Coronavirus bounces back to threaten South Korea's health system

David Tizzard, a professor of education at Seoul Women's University, says the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of stress to a society that is already something of a pressure cooker, particularly for young women.

"I don't think that all of this can be attributed to coronavirus," he told DW. "South Korea is a very homogenous nation, and there is a very clear and very high standard for beauty among young women. And when they do not measure up to that standard, they get depressed."

According to the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea has the highest per capita suicide rate of the 35 member countries, and suicide has been the top cause of death for young people since 2007.

'Perfect image'

"So Korean women are trying to live up to this perfect image, which is not something that women in more multicultural countries necessarily have to do, and I also believe that it has been made worse by the rise of social media which has, in turn, contributed to driving up rates of depression," Tizzard said.

Tizzard also believes that the new figures that are being reported may be a result of a greater awareness of the problem in society and a willingness for people to admit that they have a problem and need help. That has even spilled over into the realm of entertainment, with a new romantic television drama titled It's Okay to Not be Okay set in a psychiatric hospital where the two primary characters attempt to heal each other's emotional and psychological wounds.

Read more: Suicide prevention amid coronavirus pandemic: 'We're still there for each other'

Yet those same stars of the screen and Korea's booming music sectors are just as susceptible to depression and desperation.

On September 9, pop star Shin Min-ah, formerly with the all-girl group ILUV, was stopped by police just before she tried to jump off the Seongsan Bridge in Seoul. It was the second time police had intervened to avert a suicide attempt by the 22-year-old.

If you are suffering from serious emotional strain or suicidal thoughts, do not hesitate to seek professional help. You can find information on where to find such help, no matter where you live in the world, at this website: https://www.befrienders.org/

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea