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Ways to Improve South Korea's High Suicide Rate

K-pop, K-BBQ, and K-Beauty have all swept over the internet with their popularity. Aside from the fun music and mouthwatering food, South Korea is also known for another unfortunate truth: the nation's ranking in suicide rates among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations.

Imagine waking up before sunrise and having to input math and science all into your brain until midnight. Then, you wake up and do the same thing all over again. Try also picturing having to get in line at the department store to collect luxury items with a limited salary to "fit in" with society. This isn't a plot to a dystopian novel, but rather the reality of many South Koreans.

There were reportedly 1,046 suicides in South Korea in August 2022. Among the members of the OECD, South Korea has the highest rate of suicide.

Furthermore, South Korea has a high prevalence of mental illness. According to a statewide epidemiological study of mental disorders conducted in Korea, one in four Koreans will have a mental ailment at some time.

Despite the number of mental health issues and suicide rates, getting help for mental health is not easy in the nation. The taboo nature of talking about mental health is a perception shared by many South Koreans, making the advocacy efforts of South Korean doctors primarily ineffective.

South Korea's ideal beauty standard and fixation on weight have negatively influenced many individuals, including the youth. The average weight of a South Korean female is approximately 130 lbs, which is 40 lbs less than that of an average-weight American woman.

A 2017 survey found that rather than participating in physical activities, Korean female college students were more interested in finding quicker ways to lose weight and improve their appearance by changing their eating habits, which can deteriorate their health.

Societal standards are also at another level in the nation, as well. Luxury goods are used to measure wealth, explaining the reason behind the country's excessive spending on designer goods. The monarchs of luxury are now South Koreans, at least in terms of spending money. Luxury goods consumption in the nation climbed by 24% in 2022, generating $16.8 billion in revenue or $325 per person.

Consumers in South Korea tend to relate to appearance and financial success more than those in most other nations, creating an unrealistic persona and tendency to boast by posting their new handbags and watches on social media platforms. This impractical reality of having the pressure to collect luxury goods to feel accepted and successful often puts people, especially younger adults, in debt.

Aside from the "perfect" beauty and fashion standard prevalent in the country, academics is another large stressor. Many Korean students participate in after-school academies where they stay all day to study and prepare for college. The challenging, competitive, and stressful educational environment in South Korea is a significant cause of stress for students and families.

Jee Yun Kim, a South Korean high school student living in Seoul, says her day begins at 6 a.m. and starts her day with a quick review from the night before, before having some breakfast. After getting ready, she heads to school at 8:30 a.m. After her classes and evening self-study, she must head to an academy to receive a more intense education tailored to her college entrance exam. When she comes home, it’s usually around 12 a.m. After a quick night routine, she goes to bed and prepares to do the same thing again tomorrow. The weekends are not much different for her either, as she goes to private academies to continue studying.

Approximately 70% of 25 to 34-year-olds in Korea have a university degree, and the academic competition starts early and dominates the lives of families with children under 18. The pressure on parents to give their kids a leg up in the fiercely competitive educational environment is a significant source of worry and financial stress. Not only do students get stressed from incessant study sessions and pressure, but families all receive compressing force from society, with expensive after-school academies and private tutors that everyone seems to participate in.

Many schools also have a system called yaja, a term that can be roughly translated to "evening self-study." The concept of yaja was implemented in 1981 to ensure students receive all the education they need. Students are expected to stay in school and, aside from one dinner break, must remain there until late at night, sometimes until 10 p.m. Although every school has different policies and not every school participates in an evening self-study, many do, meaning students spend most of their day in school with books and homework.

Breaking away from the norm

Do Young Woo, also known as 18 High, is a South Korean hip-hop artist who moved to America. He mentions that there are noticeable differences between the two cultures.

The rising artist says the most significant difference between students in America and Korea is the ability and power of students in the United States to follow their dreams without caring about others' opinions. Woo continues that many South Korean students must work their way up to ensure a stable career path into top companies, or else their status as successful individuals is hindered.

"If one fails to get into a 'good' university or 'admirable' company after graduating, many have to face unnecessary feelings of failure and sorrow," says Woo.

Woo says people feel defeated because one's academic background and career status become a tool for evaluation. There are many phenomena in which a person's educational background and occupation become a business card in social life. Instead of what a person enjoys, what their passions are, or what truly makes them happy, all that seems to matter is what school they went to and what their jobs entail.

Also, the high population density in Seoul seems to have created a fiercely competitive society. As 10 million out of 50 million people live in Seoul, it seems they are competing more aggressively to survive among the crowd. Those who lose in the competition can easily suffer from depression and other mental health complications.

- Woo

On the other hand, in the U.S., Woo says you can find more people who pursue their dreams regardless of their academic background or job.

"I think it's natural that Koreans who have grown up in a fiercely competitive society become prone to mental illness. I also suffered from panic attacks after being tired of the combative society and losing my dearest family member. Getting on medication and starting therapy helped me a lot in my recovery, but what helped me the most was when I got to do what I wanted to," shares Woo.

"I wanted to do music since I was young but ran away from my dream while looking at all the expectations around me. Although I didn't start chasing my dream earlier, I got the courage after seeing the people I encountered in America."

He says many people cheered him on, despite some criticism he received for giving up his stable life. Woo chose to pursue his passion without caring about others, which is what gave him heightened confidence and self-esteem. His panic disorder improved significantly after learning to care for himself and following his heart.

Woo shares that a good academic background and snatching an excellent job are both indeed impressive, but he yearns for the country to slowly change and give more support to those who want to follow their dreams.

How can we help South Korea?

South Korean psychologist, Jane Park, says people need to be more open-minded about getting help.

"Many of my South Korean acquaintances and patients often come into sessions uncomfortable and embarrassed to share their thoughts. They often think admitting they've been depressed or anxious will put a red line on their career. That is not true, and I am always so proud of every patient who scooped up the courage to come to get the help they need," says Park.

Park has been providing help to the Korean community for more than a decade and says many come in with anxiety and depression. In a competitive and fast-paced society, Koreans always work toward new goal and try to live the perfect life.

"No one is perfect," says Park. "It makes me sad when so many people, especially younger adults, share how much pressure they feel within themselves. They're expected to excel at school, go to prestigious universities, get an impressive job, and make a lot of money, on top of fulfilling all the exterior responsibilities such as fitting the beauty standards, and having expensive luxuries and cars, when in reality, what they need is someone to talk to."

Park hopes people will get the help they need if they feel alone.

It's normal to feel lonely and sad sometimes, and it's not 'embarrassing' or a 'weakness' to come to get help. It's the opposite. Acknowledging that life can be hard and working on yourself to be the happiest person you can be is the most important and splendid thing.

- Park

It is crucial that the country emphasizes the importance of mental health. Many citizens, including celebrities, are constantly expected to hide their mental health issues and act impeccably to show strength.

Tackling unrealistic beauty standards

Soo Youn Lee, a Korean-American model and social media influencer with over 195K followers on TikTok, says "I believe South Korea ranks #1 in suicide rates among OECD nations due to the intense pressure rooted in Korean culture. This pressure is given from all angles and all categories ranging from beauty to education. Don't get me wrong, it's quite amazing what our country has achieved within the last 50 years, but this led to a society that never rests. The pressure is too much. Koreans are expected to - by definition - be perfect."

Image by Soo Youn Lee

Lee points out some cultural aspects of South Korea and how they can interfere with self-esteem and confidence.

"I always felt underdressed, even if I was going down the street to the convenience store. I also noticed that anytime I saw my family members, I'd have to constantly talk about my achievements, how my career was going, and any awards. It was exhausting. It felt like a constant job interview. However, not all are worse than America. But we're discussing why South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates - and these are all valid reasons."

Changing a culture or convincing a group of people to follow a different path than they've always had is always challenging. Fortunately, there are ways to help the country with its mental health and provide necessary treatments. And that includes getting to step one — taking about it.

"It's easy for me to sit here and say the nation needs to be open-minded about mental health. But the country has a negative stigma around 'depression' or any mental disorder. How do we change an entire generation? Everything could help."

Lee concludes: "More news footage of mental help support centers, less negative stigma, parental support, suicide call lines, social media influence, and more educated doctors/specialists on mental health support. I truly believe the younger generation has the power to change the stigma on mental health. The evidence is clear; the country is struggling."

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