The average Korean will be subject to at least 19 state-administered checks on their mental health throughout his lifetime, under measures recently announced by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
From next year, a Korean will be asked to complete a mental health questionnaire twice before entering elementary school, twice in primary school, once each in middle and high school, three times in their 20s and twice every 10 years thereafter.
It is rare in the world for a country to get its entire population to have their mental health checked.
The measures were prompted by a survey conducted last year, which showed that many Koreans have psychiatric problems but few of them seek professional help.
In the survey of about 6,000 adults, 14.4 percent said they suffered from a mental disorder. Of the sufferers, only 15.3 percent received psychiatric treatment or counseling.
The mental checkup will be made through a questionnaire to be mailed by the National Health Insurance Corporation to recipients, who are required to complete it and send it back.
The results of the examination, which will also be delivered by mail, will not make a diagnosis but advise on whether a person needs a more thorough checkup. Information on nearby institutions available for psychiatric treatment or counseling will also be included.
It is hoped that the checkup will help people in mental distress recognize their problem and prevent it from deteriorating by getting professional assistance.
An early recognition of mental disorder and proper treatment could lead to reducing the suicide rate.
According to a survey released by the ministry early this year, 57 percent of people who killed themselves and 75.7 percent of those who attempted to do so were found to have suffered from more than one type of mental disorder.
The country’s suicide rate, which stood at 31.2 per 100,000 people last year, has been the highest among the 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in recent years.
It is also a step in the right direction to narrow the scope of mental illnesses by excluding mild psychiatric disorders from the category.
Under a new definition, only those diagnosed by a medical institution as being unable to lead a normal life or work will be classified as mentally ill.
The measure is expected to help prevent people with a record of receiving treatment for temporary depression or other mild mental disorders from being disadvantaged in getting a job or acquiring a license.
A wide range of discrimination against those with a record of visiting a psychiatrist have made many people with depression hesitate to seek professional help, exacerbating their troubles.
The proportion of Koreans with psychiatric problems who received treatment, which is slightly over 15 percent, is less than half the OECD average, with the corresponding figures being 39.2 percent in the U.S., 34.9 percent in Australia and 38.9 percent in New Zealand.
Despite the anticipated effects of the measures worked out by the ministry, due attention should be paid to ease concerns about the possibility that individuals will have their mental health records leaked.
Officials downplay it, but the importance of protecting sensitive private information cannot be overestimated. They should keep in mind their responsibility to work out thorough methods to prevent the results of the mental examination from being leaked by staff or its database from being hacked.
It is also hoped that a periodical survey on a national scale will help ease the current social atmosphere that is too hostile toward people with mental disorder.
In tandem with the measure, efforts are needed to end the public’s deep-rooted prejudice by letting them know that depression and many other psychiatric problems can be treated.