Tragically, a young man committed suicide by throwing himself off the highest building on my campus this week. Rumor has it that there was a relationship break up and alcohol involved. It happened at 8.50 am on Monday. An hour later, the body was gone from the sidewalk and there were no signs that anything out of the ordinary had happened. Days later, there is still nothing to commemorate or acknowledge this death at the location where it happened. I am disturbed by this.
I have often worried about the high rate of suicide in South Korea. Here are the facts: Korea has the highest rate of suicide in the OECD. The toll of suicide deaths has doubled in the last decade. There are some 40 suicides everyday. It is the most common cause of death for those under 40 (although those considered elderly also have a very high rate).
When I first came to this country, I was so perplexed by this phenomenon that I wrote and published an article about it (you can read it here). My perspective was basically that there was (is) a lack of mental health services available and an incredibly strong stigma surrounding mental health issues. There is often a ‘blame the victim’ mentality. Also, it is a highly competitive society with a very narrow definition of success. There was a huge response to the article. It was cited in books. Complete strangers contacted me from all over the world. Others wanted to meet with me to talk about it. And we did. What this told me was that it was a conversation that needed to be had. People are desperate to understand this beguiling problem and share their concern and compassion.
Although change takes time, I have faith that this society will evolve so that fewer people feel the need to take such drastic and final action. I hope that as time goes on, fewer of the nation’s most famous movie stars, sports stars, supermodels and politicians take their lives, as they have been doing with disconcerting frequency in recent years, and instead espouse the virtues of anything that could be more helpful (medication, therapy, A.A., hospitalisation etc.) without being judged.
Before, I felt some distance from this issue – as an expatriate or foreigner in a second home, there is always the privilege (or burden) of having an outsider’s perspective. Now that this has happened in close physical proximity to me, I realize that this is something that affects everybody, to varying degrees. May hope triumph over despair.