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South Korea Tries New Approach to Reduce Suicides

  • Jason Strother

South Korea has one of the highest rates of suicide in the developed world. Now the government is trying a new approach to prevent people from taking their own lives.

It only took a single generation for the country to go from an impoverished nation to one of the world’s top economies. It is a fast-paced society, where people have a hard time slowing down. Some observers say this rapid development is leaving many South Koreans feeling isolated and depressed.

Kim Hyun-chung, a psychiatrist at the National Medical Center in Seoul, says more than half of her patients have suicidal thoughts.

“We’re just growing just too fast and people don’t have time to adjust to it," she explains. "We are an Asian cultural society but now we are more globalized. Its westernized and I don’t think people have had the time to adjust to the big changes.”

The biggest change, Kim says is family structure. No longer do multiple generations live under one roof. She says the traditional support systems are disappearing.

“More parents are working, mother father, they’re both, working families. More focused toward competition, earning the money all of that. I think we’re more focused to that than the quality of life,” Kim says.

She adds that senior citizens make up the largest demographic of Koreans who take their own lives. But suicide is still a leading cause of death for young adults, high school and even middle school students.

Over the past five years, at least 100 Koreans have leaped off Seoul’s Map Bridge into the Han River. Around half of those jumpers lost their lives. Now Seoul City is trying to turn this suicide spot into what it calls the bridge of life.

“If we would have only installed walls, it would have stopped people from jumping, but instead we want to change their minds about suicide,” says Lee Ducky, who oversees Han River bridges for the Seoul City government.

Along the bridge’s sidewalk are inspirational slogans that say things like be happy, how’s everything going and have you eaten yet? There are also pictures of babies on the railing and at the center of the bridge is a brass statue of an old man consoling a young person. Seoul hopes these installments will make people think again before taking the next step.

But psychiatrist Kim Hyun-chung is not so sure how effective these will be.

“I think it's just a stop gap measure, it’s only temporary," she notes, "it can’t be the only way to solve this problem. I think it would help, just to an extent, not too much”

Kim adds that if someone really wants to end their life, there are plenty of other bridges across the Han River.

Malte Kollenberg contributed to this report

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