Korean society is already notorious for its high suicide rate. But the latest statistics released last week show that the nation has been doing little to cure what has become a serious social illness.
OECD Health Data statistics showed that Korea’s suicide rate is the highest among the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
It said that 29.1 people out of every 100,000 took their own lives in 2012, which is 17 times higher than Turkey’s 1.7 and 2.4 times higher than the 12.1 average of the group of 34 wealthy nations.
This means a total of 14,160 Koreans ― more than 38 a day ― committed suicide that year. This is 2.3 times as high as the traffic accident fatality rate.
More troubling is that Korea has been on the top of the OECD index for 10 straight years. That the rate decreased from 33.3 in 2011 to 29.1 in 2012 can hardly be a relief.
Not long ago, Korea’s suicide rate was not so high compared with other countries. It was below the OECD average at 8.3 in 1992 and 12.7 in 1995. But it began rising rapidly in the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which shook up Korean businesses and households. In 1998, when the economic crisis was at its height, the rate shot up to 21.7.
Local data shows that social and demographic factors figure prominently. A Health Ministry report showed that the male suicide rate was 38.2, much higher than the female rate of 18. Those with lower education and income levels are also in a high-risk group.
There are other vulnerable groups, like the young people who go through the world’s most rigorous education system and who fail to adapt to military service, and people who lose their jobs or whose businesses fail. People suffering from depression, those who have attempted suicide, those living alone and the elderly are also at risk of committing suicide.
Korea’s suicide rate is higher than OECD members in most age groups. But the elderly pose the most serious problem. Statistics for 2011 show that 81.9 people out of 100,000 aged 65 or older killed themselves, which is about five times higher than in the United States and Japan.
This phenomenon is closely related to poverty. Korea’s poverty rate among the elderly is the worst in the OECD. People who are old, but have little wealth and few to rely on while suffering from illness and loneliness are easily driven to suicide.
In this vein, it is worth noting that some local governments have initiated programs to fight the high suicide rate among the elderly.
Seongbuk-gu, a district in northern Seoul, opened a center for preventing suicide among the elderly in 2010, the first of its kind in the country. The center identified 400 high-risk people and had about 300 counselors and volunteers take care of them by maintaining a personal relationship. As a result, the suicide rate in the district went down to 22.1 in 2012 from 30.1 in 2010.
Jinan-gun, a county in North Jeolla Province, is another success story. A farming area inhabited mostly by the elderly, Jinan-gun had the nation’s highest suicide rate of 75.5 in 2011. Officials selected a group of high-risk people and counselors visited them at least once a month. The suicide rate plummeted to 21.8 in 2012.
The Seongbuk-gu and Jinan-gun cases show that not only the central government but local governments as well can help curb suicide.
Officials could take lessons from Japan, which has a central government agency dealing with suicide prevention and spends 40 times more than Korea’s mere 7.5 billion won each year. The nation needs to strengthen its social safety net as well.
This society makes a fuss whenever there is a high-profile suicide case ― be it a suicide pact or a celebrity, politician, executive or destitute family. But it has been doing little to fight the high suicide rate. This lack of action is more shameful than holding the dishonorable title of No. 1 in the developed world.