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South Korea's Suicide Rate On the Rise 


In just a few decades, South Korea transformed itself from an impoverished country devastated by war into the world's 13th largest economy. But that dramatic growth has a dark side, some mental health professionals say. South Korea has seen its suicide rate rise sharply, and the nation's youth are at risk. Jason Strother has the story from Seoul.

On the platforms in many of Seoul's subway stations, tall glass gates open and close as passengers enter and exit the train cars.

These barricades are a safety precaution but they were also installed to prevent people from throwing themselves onto the paths of trains. Last year, 23 people in Seoul attempted suicide this way, up from 18 the year before.

Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in South Korea.

World Health Organization figures show that in 2004, South Korea's suicide rate was almost 24 per 100,000 people. That is more than double the rate in 1985 - of nine per 100,000.

What is more, that increase contrasts sharply with trends in other wealthy countries; in nearby Japan, for instance, the rate rose to 24 per 100,000, from just over 19 20 years earlier. In the United States, the rate stayed nearly flat, at around 11 per 100,000 over two decades, while in Germany, the rate fell to 13 per 100,000 in 2004, from almost 18 in 1990.

Dr. Hong Kang-eui is a psychiatrist and president of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention. He says the rising number of suicides here is a new phenomenon.

He thinks rapid economic growth has changed the way South Koreans regard life.

"The cultural value system has been something missing [missing something], some internal value standard, [that] used to be very strong in Oriental culture, Korean culture. Now it's too much materialistic, too achievement oriented," he said.

What has changed most, Hong says, is family structure. Before the economic miracle, multiple generations lived together in one home. Now, a South Korean household might consist of only three or four people.

"What that means is that the social support system has changed," he said. "Previously [it was] very close-knit family, mutually dependent, helping each other. Now it's very independent, small family, and when things happen you have very little support from other people."

Hong's association, which receives little government funding, trains parents, teachers and others to recognize when someone might be suicidal.

Government figures show that suicide is the leading cause of death for South Korean males age 18 to 35 and for teenagers, it is the second leading cause.

On the campus of Seoul's Jang-An University, students say they recognize that suicide is a problem for their generation.

One student says there are so many pressures at university and there is a lot of competition. That makes people feel very helpless and lost.

"Today many young people do computers, they are not related with other people, they don't talk about deepest things inside," said another student.

Some mental health experts say South Korea's psychiatric facilities are not as well developed as in other wealthy countries, which means treatment may be inadequate for depression or other problems that increase the risk of suicide. They also note that in South Korea there is more of a social stigma against seeking mental health care than in some other countries.

The Suicide Prevention Association says this taboo often prevents people from seeking help. Instead, many go on-line in search for others who also feel hopeless. Instead of finding help, they may encounter others who want to kill themselves.

Hong says that many South Koreans form pacts on-line and later meet to end their lives together.

"The suicidal youngsters can get together through chat then really meet together and carry out [suicidal acts]," he said. One cannot have no gut[s] to carry out, but two or three can get together and really carry out, like jump together."

Other Internet sites offer information on how to commit suicide or provide material to help do it.

As a result, the association does much of its work on-line, shutting down suicide Web sites. Hong says his team shut down nearly 500 online suicide forums last year.

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