Celebrity suicides spark copy-cat fears

  • Published : Apr 5, 2010 - 13:26
  • Updated : Apr 5, 2010 - 13:26

Back in 2003 and 2004, Korean society was rattled by the jumping deaths of high profile personalities.
Starting with Hyundai Asan chairman Chung Mong-hun - who leapt to his death from his office while under investigation for illegal cash payments to North Korea - many prominent social figures including former South Jeolla Province governor Park Tae-young and former president of Daewoo Construction and Engineering, Nam Sang-kook, chose to end their lives by jumping from buildings.
The effect lived on for months with many citizens committing suicide by jumping off bridges and apartment buildings. To prevent further deaths, the government had to build safety walls on bridges and order guards to close doors leading to apartment rooftops.
Another wave of copycat suicides is feared this year, following the deaths of two popular TV celebrities who hanged themselves.
Actress Jeong Da-bin became the latest high-profile suicide among celebrities over the weekend, found hanged in her boyfriend`s house. Female singer Yuni had also hanged herself to death just a month earlier on Jan. 21.
Just days after the suicides of Yuni and Jeong, three citizens died by hanging themselves, showing that the fearful effect had already began.
Yesterday, a college student died by hanging himself with a necktie at his home in Seoul and a high school student in Busan died in her classroom by hanging herself with a curtain.
On Jan. 22, an elementary school student hung himself leaving a note that he couldn`t stand his parents stopping him from watching TV.
Experts fear more copycat suicides for Korea which is already dealing with the highest suicide rate among the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In 2005, 24.7 in every 100,000 Koreans had committed suicide, the rate doubling during the last decade.
"The 20-somethings and teenagers are most vulnerable to celebrity suicide," said Lee Mi-young of the Korea Institute for Youth Development. "It is not only depressed people who are affected by celebrity suicides either. The heated media atmosphere is making many youngsters glorify suicide and believe that one has the `right` to commit suicide."
When actress Lee Eun-joo hung herself out of depression in 2005, the number of suicidal cases more than doubled in less than a month.
During the month, 2.1 people a day committed suicide, a sharp rise from 0.8 people before the death of Lee. The number of suicides committed by 20-somethings in particular had increased remarkably.
In a survey conducted by the Korean Institute of Health and Social Affairs in 2005, 83 percent of the 1,503 men and women who participated said that the celebrity suicides had some influence on ordinary people who were considering suicide. Over 60 percent said that they had experienced an impulse to commit suicide after reports of Lee`s death.
"There is a need for society to not only to pay attention to depressed and sad people, but observe the meaning of suicide from an objective view," said vice-pastor Kim Jae-kyu of Chamsarang Church in Seoul. "Committing suicide is a sin not only because it ends a life but because it leaves an unbearable wound to the hearts of remaining families and friends."
In the 18th century, many young men in Europe killed themselves with a gun after reading the novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther,"` written by German poet Goethe.
Romanticizing the story of a young man who kills himself with a gun after being rejected by his lover, these men were led to a belief that lonesome and sorrowful lives had to be ended.
American sociologist David Phillips later named the trend the "Werther effect."
Today, it is not fictional characters but celebrities and prominent social figures that lead the effect. However "romantic" it may seem, taking one`s own life should never be justified - and the society and the media appear to have the biggest role in keeping to the facts.

By Shin Hae-in