On Sept. 19, four people were found dead in a guesthouse in Gangwon Province, Korea.
Nitrogen and plastic bags were also found in the room leading people to believe that the four killed themselves as part of a suicide pact.
This incident has once again thrown Korea’s high suicide rate into the spotlight.
Korea's high suicide rate
According to OECD statistics released in 2015, the suicide rate in Korea was 29.1 people per 100,000 of the population. That was by some distance the highest rate out of OECD countries and over seven people more than second-placed Hungary which had a suicide rate of 22.0.
Some people point to alienation in modern society when compared to the more closely knit communities of times past. They suggest that broken social bonds made it harder for people to have a fulfilling social life.
Others point to the outdated views on mental illness that are supposedly prevalent in Korea, where people think if someone commits suicide it is because they simply lack a strong will to live.
This is combined with the perceived stigma against the idea of seeking psychological treatment which can lead to people not getting help, even when they feel like they should be.
Korea's high-pressure work and study environment has also come under fire. Korea has some of the longest working hours in the world and this environment is often stated as one of the reasons for people committing suicide.
This is also reflected in a number of high-profile suicides around the CSAT University Entrance Exam. This is an exam where the students' entire three years of high school is distilled into one day of testing that will define whether they do, or do not, get into university.
So what is being done?
While the reasons behind the high suicide rate are perhaps unclear, what is clearer is that some things are being done to solve the problem.
This includes top-down measures from the government as well as alternative measures being brought in by other organizations.
A well-publicized measure was reported by the BBC in 2015. The Hyowon Healing Center in Seoul held mass mock funerals that included activities such as watching inspiring videos, writing farewell letters, and, perhaps most shockingly, spending ten minutes in a coffin.
These activities were not just done for the shock value, however. The Hyowon Healing Center said they hope that the event will give employees a new outlook on life and even perhaps change their attitudes on suicide.
While there is no data on how successful more left-field ideas like this have been, they do perhaps raise awareness and show a society that knows things need to be done.
The government has also been working hard to implement measures to reduce the suicide rate.
|▲ The Han River. Photo by Teddy Cross|
After noticing a spike in suicides around high-profile cases, Korean media outlets were given guidelines about how exactly they should report on suicide cases. This included putting information about how people can get help in their stories.
As well as this, special attention is paid to places that are known as suicide hotspots.
A bridge on the Han River in Seoul, for example, was notorious for being a place where many people tried to commit suicide. Because of this, it had cameras installed and also murals painted on the bridge to try to remind people of reasons not to commit suicide.
Korean Government Adopted Mental Illness Comprehensive Measures
In 2016, the government also implemented its most recent suicide prevention policy.
While not the first plan by the government, there have plans suicide prevention plans in place since 2004, there is hope that the latest one will be more effective.
The current 'Korean Government Adopted Measures Against Mental Illness' took effect in 2016 and will run for five years until 2021. They have the goal of reducing the suicide rates in the country down to 20 people out of every 100,000.
While this is still high, it would be a significant reduction on the last set of statistics.
The new measures have a number of different aims. They aim to detect the signs of suicide early. They do this by making it possible for people to receive a diagnosis of mental illness not only from hospitals and clinics but also other medical institutions.
This is due to the fact that many people who commit suicide are reportedly seeking treatment for other disorders that could be related to mental health issues such as sleeping disorders.
The plans also aim to make it cheaper for patients to access mental health treatment and also develop a campaign to raise awareness of, and reduce prejudice of, mental illness in Korea.
In particular, detecting mental illness could be key to solving the problem. After analyzing the psychological autopsies of 121 suicide victims in 2016, the Korean Psychology Autopsy Center found that 93.4 percent of the victims analyzed had shown warning signs of suicide.
The problem, the survey found, was that in most cases family members either didn’t recognize the signs as suicide warning signs or, didn’t recognize them as warning signs until after the suicide had occurred.
It crucially also found that while 88.4 percent of people had been struggling with a mental disorder, less than 15 percent of the people in the analysis had been receiving regular treatment.
This analysis potential points to the fact that if awareness is raised and help becomes easier to access, both of which are key goals of the comprehensive measures, then it could make a real difference to the number of suicides in Korea.
Duncan Elder firstname.lastname@example.org