Tackling South Korea's high suicide rates

Image caption,
The head of a savings bank jumped from his Seoul offices in an apparent suicide last month

More than 40 South Koreans a day are taking their lives and the government in Seoul has recognised it is a problem that needs tackling. But, as the BBC's Lucy Williamson finds out, the reasons for such a high suicide rate are complicated and not easy to solve.

The call-centre for Seoul's emergency services is a windowless bunker, buried alongside the forested slopes of Namsan hill.

It used to be the home of South Korea's spy agency. Now it is where the city's emergency calls come in: reports of traffic accidents, crimes, and - increasingly - suicides.

According to the government, more than 40 South Koreans a day are taking their own lives - five times as many as in their parents' day.

Unsurprisingly, the operators here say calls from people wanting to commit suicide - or witnesses to it - are increasing.

Giant screens flash details of all the calls coming in to the rows of operators. They sit surrounded by dashboards of coloured lights and communications equipment. There is a constant blur of noise.

It does not take long before the first suicide call flashes up.

"There's a person trying to jump off a building," the caller says, "and he has a knife in his hand."

One of the team, Ki-jong Gwan, says the operators have had no formal training in handling these kinds of calls, but that staff often share tips amongst themselves.

"I think there's a limit to what we can do," he said. "Some of the calls I remember were from people who'd already decided to take their lives and just wanted to ask that their bodies be taken care of.

"Others call up seeking advice on the best way to commit suicide. There are some situations where we've intervened and helped stop the person taking their life. But I think there needs to be a more fundamental solution."

Taboo subject

Across the city, in a small psychiatric hospital, Jong-sun Woo is starting another day in the ward she shares with five other women.

Jong-sun is 21 years old. She has tried to commit suicide many times over the past 10 years, and now chooses to live here in the hospital, where she is receiving support and counselling.

"I can't think how many times I've tried to kill myself," she told me. "It must now be over 20 times, it's been so many I've lost count."

She told me that she had kept her feelings of depression from those around her, and that when they had discovered her attempts at suicide, her family and friends blamed her for her depression.

"They said my mind was weak, and that if I could boost my spirits, I could make myself better. I felt a real sense of despair," she said. "I didn't think it was my fault but when people acted like that I began to wonder if perhaps it was. And the feeling lingered."

Jong-sun believes there is little real understanding of mental illness in South Korea, despite the spiralling suicide rate. Only here, after 10 years, has she managed to find the counselling she needed, she says, and is starting to feel better. Awareness was starting to improve, she said, but "I think it's a bit late".

Image caption,
Jong-sun Woo (left) is helping to raise awareness of mental health issues in street campaigns

But the real question is why this is happening at all in a country that is richer, more stable and more influential than at any time in its history?

South Korea is now the world's 12th largest economy. A place where you can surf the internet on the underground, dance the night away in a salsa club, and buy a decent cappuccino on your way to work. And yet people here seem less happy than during the years of hardship after the Korean War.

Kang-ee Hong, a child psychologist, says that over the past 40 years, South Korean parents have abandoned traditional values in favour of one single goal.

"From the beginning of childhood, the importance of money and achievement are emphasised by their parents, so they feel that unless you are successful in school grades and a good job, good prestigious college, you're not successful, and the parents behave as if 'you're not my child'," Dr Hong said.

Even young children typically work from early morning until late at night, and often at weekends too, to get into the best university they can and eventually secure a well-paying job. The pressure is intense, and the routine relentless - for years on end.

Dr Hong says that, for parents, the pressure to push their children even harder has led to them overcoming the stigma of going to a psychiatrist. But, he says, they often come for the wrong reasons.

They come to me to help their child work harder, he says, "to have better grades by being treated for ADHD (Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Disorder) - because the school performance is so important".

On a pier a couple of hours' drive outside Seoul, Jong-sun Woo is helping to set up games and quizzes near some fairground rides.

This is a prime spot for suicides and the local police have asked her activist group to run a street campaign to raise awareness about mental health.

The stall is attracting a sizeable crowd. Suicide is still largely a taboo subject here, but there is also a real curiosity amongst the public to find out what is causing it.

Parliament recently told the government to do more to tackle the problem - raising national awareness in a way that has not been seen until now. And money has started to flow.

But this is a deep-rooted problem that has grown rapidly throughout the country - some of the highest rates are in the rural areas - and activists say it will not be anything like as quick to fix.

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