Korea has the highest suicide rate in Asia, and depending on the year, has the highest suicide rate among the OECD countries. I didn’t really feel how significant this is until after some sad news last night and much reflection.
Last night, my friend’s mother-in-law passed away. They believe it was suicide. It’s especially tragic since my friend just got married last year, and I do remember meeting her mother-in-law in the ceremony. I noted how she doesn’t smile much even during such a happy occasion. I suspected she might not be too thrilled with the marriage at the time, but looking back now, she might just be dealing with depression. The tragic thing is, the death was days after the Korean holiday Parents’ Day. She was visited and presumably showered with love and attention by her children, and yet days later, she takes her own life.
Two years ago, someone committed suicide in my parents-in-laws’ apartment building by jumping from the 14th floor. Last year, the mayor of Seoul committed suicide by jumping off a cliff. This is the same way the former president Roh Mu-Hyun committed suicide. It’s also quite common to hear about suicide attempts among celebrities in the media. I myself have been thinking and writing about suicide more often lately, I admit, to an unhealthy amount.
Looking back to my life in Canada, it’s very hard to think of anyone who has committed or has flirted with suicidal thoughts. Honestly, as of this time, I can only think of one person. But here in Korea, it’s scary how commonplace it is, not just cases of suicide, but reminders of it. Bridges have messages of encouragement and affirmations in order to prevent people from jumping. There’s a law that makes the victim’s family responsible for paying for the recovery of their body in the Han River, making it seem like the family is at fault for the victim’s actions and perhaps adding a burden of guilt to people in order to dissuade them. Train platforms in the country have full suicide prevention barriers, not like other countries where there are sometimes none or only a waist high fence prevents accidental jumpers. Despite all of these preventative measures however, the rate is still high, and even higher in the past year due to the pandemic.
According to a report by the OECD, Koreans complain more often about “relative deprivation” than other countries. This means people compare their lives more with other people and end up being dissatisfied with their current situation. This is not unique among South Koreans, but I can honestly attest that I’ve seen this several times, and instead of viewing this as petty or just thinking “be happy with what you have,” people view this as legitimate reactions or good conversation. “Did you know he drives a BMW?” “Did you hear that his house is all paid for?” “I think he earns more money than his friends.” It all sounds extremely shallow. And of course it’s a neverending struggle. Someone will always be more successful than you.
This, compounded with financial stresses, societal expectations, relationship problems, and a negative attitude towards seeking mental help, no wonder the suicide rate is so high in the country.
Suicide is like a constant grim specter that haunts the country. It was shocking last night, and I feel like it won’t be the first time I’ll be hearing about similar deaths or attempts in the future. Get some help, everyone. Talk to someone. And be happy with what you have. There’s a heaven and a star for you.