Korea's dying students

Photo by James Kim and Craig Stuart
Photo by James Kim and Craig Stuart

Korea's dying students

by: Deva Lee and Matthew Lamers | .
Groove Korea (groovekorea.com) | .
published: October 07, 2013

When Chun Yoon-mi was in middle school, she was “absolutely sure” she wanted to kill herself. She narrowed it down to two choices: she would either jump off the building she shared with her grandparents, or overdose on pills. Bullies at her school had urged her to commit suicide, telling her she was the reason her parents divorced. The date was set.

“However, a few days before I planned to do it,” she says, “I saw my grandma crying and smiling over a picture of me as a baby ... and it made me feel guilty.” Chun — whose name has been changed to protect her identity — chose to survive. “If I did indeed kill myself, my grandma and mom were the ones who were going to suffer,” she explaines. She endured another year of bullying before moving to the United States to live with her mother.

Just over a year ago, a girl in Gangwon Province wasn’t as fortunate. In the suicide note she left, she explained that she was “sorry,” but that she killed herself “because life is too tough.” Her mother discovered the body in the garden of the family’s apartment. She was 10 years old.

Suicide is responsible for around 40 deaths per day in Korea, and can be considered a national epidemic. With the highest rate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – whose members are generally democratic and developed countries – the nation has led the first world in incidences of suicide per 100,000 people since 2004.

Teen suicide increased significantly in the 10 years leading to 2009 before dropping slightly in the past few years. The last decade has seen suicide claim between 6-17 percent of fatalities of youth aged 10-14 years, and 20-34 percent of teens aged 15-19 years.

According to the National Youth Policy Institute, nearly one-fourth of Korean youths considered committing suicide in 2012.

Their survey found that academic pressure was the top reason, at 36.7 percent, followed by problems in the household and violence at school, at 23.7 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively.

A lethal competition

Chun, now 17 and living in New York, says that the competitive nature of Korea’s school system, rather than providing a healthy place for students to learn and develop important life skills, encourages students to compete against each other as early as elementary school. “Attending English academies and others, everyone wants every ‘spec’ they can get and kids are overworked,” she says. “This progresses into high school. If you do not get accepted in a college in Seoul, you don’t have many chances to get a good job thereafter.”

Kim Soo-hyun, also 17, is currently feeling the pressure to compete for admission to university. She leaves her home at 6:45 a.m. Even though her high school is officially on vacation, she and her fellow pupils are participating in mandatory extra classes. She doesn’t return home until 10:30 p.m., after attending a public school and two hagwon, or private tutoring academies. She does homework until about 1 a.m.

Kim’s schedule is typical of South Korean high school students, who spend almost all their time preparing for the Suneung, or the College Scholastic Ability Test, held every November. Kim’s score will determine whether she is accepted into a top-tier school — putting her on a path to a respectable career — or forcing her to seek a position in a lower-ranking educational institution, which carries much more uncertainty for career and marriage prospects.

She says she is pressured to attain excellent grades by her “parents, mostly,” who attended prestigious universities and expect their daughter to follow suit. As Kim says, even those with outstanding grades are not considered successful “if the student doesn’t end up in top universities.” She accepts these standards as the norm. “It’s a bit cruel,” she says, “but I think that it’s (the) same in any other society.”

Not exactly. South Korean students spend more hours studying than students in any other OECD country. High school students are under significant pressure to succeed academically. And they do: The country has the highest scores in reading and mathematics in the OECD. But this seems to have come at a cost.

Bae Eun-jeong, a middle school teacher in Seoul, believes that this hyper-competitive educational environment focuses on competition and academic achievement to the detriment of students’ mental health.

“Most Korean students go to an academy right after school,” she says. “They hop from one academy to another all day long to improve their grades. They don’t have enough family time. Even when a teacher wants to talk about their interests after school, it is hard to get a hold of the students because their schedule is so tight.

“The lack of creative and emotional outlets and a rigid life cycle cause stress, and that can cause people to make the wrong choice, like committing suicide, when they fail because of competitive overload.”

Psychology professor Kim Yung-che of Keimyung University in Daegu agrees that the pressure on students to achieve has increased in recent years. “Pressure on students to succeed has increased dramatically, and bullying has emerged as a serious problem. … Some students might not be able to find outlets to communicate their problems and emotional instability, (so) suicide might be one of the ways they choose to express themselves.”

Hong Jun-sung, co-author of the academic study “An Ecological Understanding of Youth Suicide in South Korea,” tells Groove Korea that the country’s children, “from an early age, learn the importance of succeeding.” Success has a very narrow definition, however: “The only way to succeed in life is to ‘be the very best.’

“It is not surprising that students who are dissatisfied with their school environment are (more) likely to commit suicide,” says Hong. “Students are likely to be dissatisfied with their school if they experience academic stress, negative relationships with teachers and negative peer relationships – all of which can induce feelings of depression, anxiety, and emotional problems, and subsequently trigger suicidal behaviour.”

Hwang Hyun-su of the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union (KTU) sees this ruthless competition as “a kind of torture in the name of ‘education’.”a

“The system usually focuses on only academic things and students’ marks. It is connected to the entrance of a university, which is very hierarchical,” Hwang says. “Parents and teachers drive students into cutthroat competition in schools. There is little joy of learning, love for arts or teaching of democratic citizenship — only enduring until entering a good university.”

For Chun, it was an endless cycle of competition. “The Korean culture of always competing for being the absolute best is a double-edged sword,” she says. “Also, the fact that schools do not speak up about all the bullying issues is a big problem.”

Suicide and bullying

In early May this year, the nation was shocked by the suicide of a 15-year-old who jumped from the 20th floor of his apartment building after enduring years of humiliation at the hands of a bully. Part of his suicide note warned: “You’ll never be able to spot school violence the way it is now. There are blind spots in classrooms and restrooms where no closed-circuit cameras are installed. That is where most school violence happens.”

A week earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported that a 12-year-old in Busan jumped to her death on the first day of school. Her note only read: “I am sorry. I am worried that I will become the odd one out again.”

Korean media has regularly reported on instances in which bullying led to suicides in recent years, with the suicide of former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2009 making the extent of the epidemic evident to the nation. The problem reached the country’s highest office in May when President Park Geun-hye declared school violence a “social ill” and promised to hatch solutions to “eradicate” it. To combat the issues, President Park announced a plan to install high-resolution, closed-circuit cameras at schools across the nation, as well as the initiation of courses on the prevention of bullying and the establishment of security offices.

Last year, the government launched a hotline as part of its measures to improve student welfare and combat school violence. Since the 117 line was implemented, the call center has received about 305 reports per day, according to data from the National Police Administration and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

From January to May 2013, assaults accounted for 29.1 percent of the complaints, 23 percent involved verbal abuse, 9.7 percent were threats and intimidation, and ostracism accounted for 5.9 percent. Elementary school students made up 56.5 percent of the victims, middle school students took up 27.7 percent and high schoolers accounted for 11.6 percent. The number of cases referred to the police has doubled since 2012.

Responding to the increasing reports of school violence, the Gyeonggi Provincial Police Agency prepared a 2013 School Violence Response Guideline. It calls for “honorary teachers” and police officers to visit schools monthly to promote an anti school-violence campaign. In addition, local governments, education authorities and civic groups will create school violence prevention councils, and police stations will operate guidance programs for students. The government also plans to establish counseling centers for victims nationwide and come up with a unified training program for counselors.

According to Hwang and the KTU, the prevalence of bullying may be due to the education system’s use of corporal punishment. Because of this, Hwang says, “it is very easy and natural for students to act violently towards their classmates when they experience and witness their teachers’ violent actions towards students.”

A 2011 survey published by the Korea Institute of Criminology revealed just how widespread corporal punishment had become. Of the 481 high school students at six high schools polled, 95 percent had experienced corporal punishment.

Although education offices in Seoul, Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province and Gangwon Province have banned corporal punishment, at present there exists no all-encompassing law against corporal punishment nationwide.

Student rights ordinances, some of which ban corporal punishment, differ from province to province. A recent change in Seoul’s education chief could lead to a nullification of the city’s year-old student rights ordinance. The ordinance — which also permits protests, allows pupils to choose their own hairstyles and clothing on school grounds for the first time, and prevents discrimination against homosexual and pregnant students — is opposed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology as well as the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations.

“Corporal punishment doesn’t provide any solutions for the numerous problems facing students, but it affects a student mentally. Especially, when the student gets corporal punishment in front of other students, they will feel embarrassed and humiliated. It will exasperate problems of students with low self-esteem,” says Middle school teacher Bae.

Stigma and depression

While academic pressure and bullying are detrimental to youth welfare, social factors are not solely responsible for the high rates of teen suicide.

Ha Kyooseob, president of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention, notes that people don’t often consider the strong link between suicide and depression. This allows them to blame social factors for suicides, he says, rather than addressing the prevalence of mental health problems.

“Most Koreans still do not know that they have mental disorders,” he explains to Groove Korea, “and that mental disorders can be treated successfully.”

For those who suffer from depression, it may be more difficult to negotiate social pressure and approach others for help. This is compounded by the stigma surrounding mental health in Korea.

Hong agrees that mental illness is often hidden or overlooked by Koreans. “Many South Korean parents refuse to acknowledge that their child has such problems and are reluctant to seek help,” he says.

Until recently, patients of mental health professionals had their insurance records branded with a “Code F,” rendering their condition public and putting them at risk of discrimination. The Ministry of Health and Welfare explains that in former policies, “institutions had to input the psychiatric disease code in the diagnosis section for insurance claims when conducting supportive therapy, concentration therapy and analysis therapy.” It is because of this stigma, it said, that “only 15.3 percent of people with a mental illness received consultations with a psychiatrist, a non-psychiatric doctor or any other mental health professional for treatment.”

One hundred eight thousand adults attempted suicide in 2011, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. It estimates 75.3 percent of them had mental disorders.

High school student Chun believes the stigma impedes people from seeking treatment. She thinks that this is rooted in Korea’s culture of “saving face,” which often values one’s reputation above all else. “It’s the same with mental diseases,” she says. “No one wants to say they have one, because they don’t want to have a ‘bad image.’ Korea’s all about keeping a good image and being perfect. Any deviation from the norm is seen as bad.”

The cost of rapid change

Although the current generation of Korea’s youth did not witness firsthand the country’s rapid postwar industrialization, democratization, technological revolution or subsequent economic collapse (and then revitalization), they have inherited the accompanying stress from their parents and society.

The onset of the suicide epidemic appears to be tethered to the East Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. Prior to this, suicide rates were remarkably low, considering the country’s rapid economic growth in the postwar period known as “The Miracle on the Han River.” Historically, such periods of rapid development in a country have been accompanied by a spike in national suicide rates. Korea managed to adapt very well to the swift social changes in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which included technological advances and increased urbanization, along with a rash of social challenges.

Adaption to these seismic changes took a knock, however, with the 1997 financial crisis. This put a large number of men out of work, adding enormous strain on patriarchal, single-income households. Social welfare programs were inadequate in relation to the support needed by the young, old or unemployed during the period.

While the country’s economy has recovered remarkably, uncharted social side effects have weighed on the average Korean since then. Statistics from the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention show that the national suicide rate tripled from the mid-1990s, when only 10 in 100,000 people took their own lives, to around 30 in 100,000 in 2008.

Despite this jump, the Korean government’s spending on social welfare programs — such as mental health care or suicide prevention — was still remarkably low. As a ratio of gross domestic product, Korea spent the least among all 33 OECD nations on social programs in 2009 — lower than even Mexico and the United States. But that started to change. Spending on welfare rose 37 percent on average every year from 2007 to 2012.

The government’s role

With a new president at the helm, the government has changed its tune in the last year, and has started taking serious measures to reverse the epidemic. They’re being pressured on two fronts: More people are accepting the existence of a serious problem, and suicide has apparently reached such alarming numbers that the government says it is affecting Korea’s “brand” overseas.

“Suicide not only hurts the lives of individuals but the national image and its value,” admitted Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, who instructed relevant ministries “to make every effort to curb suicides.”

At a policy coordination meeting in June, the government pledged to set up a public-private committee to explore ways to stem the country’s suicide rate. In the belief that the media’s coverage of the deaths cause copycat suicides, the government may ask media companies to not report the details of such cases and is considering blocking websites that provide information on how to commit suicide.

January saw the initiation of suicide prevention measures on two bridges over the Han River in Seoul, a popular site for suicides. Teams installed surveillance cameras, heat-detecting sensors, emergency bells and phones, all set to record the behavioral patterns of those attempting to jump off the bridges, which also carry signs with encouraging messages. If the project proves successful, it will be expanded to all bridges over the Han in the future.

It’s clear that these measures only treat the symptoms of the epidemic, however, and not the causes. New programs hope to change this. From April 1, the Ministry of Health and Welfare stated that psychiatric consultations with no medicine prescribed will not leave detailed medical records when health insurance is claimed. Instead, psychiatrists are now allowed to make claims for the general consultation code (Z Code) of health insurance claims.

This comes as part of the Ministry’s Comprehensive Plan for Mental Health Improvement, launched in June 2012, which seeks to combat the steady increase of suicide rates as well as “discrimination against mental illness.” In this program, the ministry promises to conduct mental screening for all Koreans from 2013. “(Tests) will be conducted twice for preschoolers and elementary school students, once for middle school and high school students each, three times for those in (their) 20s, and twice in each decade beyond that.” No other details were provided and the Health Ministry was unavailable for comment.

In addition, teachers will be given mandatory training and the government will increase the number of community mental health centers throughout the country. The Ministry acknowledges that “existing suicide prevention programs have been mere translated versions of foreign programs” and that their new plans reflect the “nation’s sociocultural conditions.”

The effectiveness of these new programs is debatable, since previous efforts to address the issue have been relatively unsuccessful.

According to Hong, “it is simply not enough to just send a student to a counselor and have a one-on-one counseling session. Families, peers, teachers and school officials need to be actively involved.”

Chun says she is now living a happy life in the United States. Her advice to anyone suffering at the hands of a bully is to “never succumb under the pressure of someone else’s cruel words, and definitely share what is going on with parents, teachers.”

She thinks Korea’s suicide problem will only abate if the root causes are addressed and there are repercussions for bullies, which could include parents, teachers and iljin (school gangs).

“I think it’s definitely going to take time.”

Groove Korea website

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