“The atmosphere around mental health is not so good in terms of the perception about mental illness, government investment and budget allocation,” said Park Jong-ik, a professor of psychiatry at Kangwon National University. With a rapidly aging society and a struggling economy taking priority on the national political agenda, professor Park said people who suffer from a mental illness -- particularly those with a more severe illness -- are not a sought-after section of voters and funds are being allocated elsewhere.
“The elderly was a very important issue in the election because we are an aging society, so voting rights are very important, but mentally disabled people are not such attractive voters so the politicians and bureaucrats don’t focus on mentally ill patients,” he said.
Known for long work hours and competitive society, South Korea has the developed world’s second-highest suicide rate and the highest among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, according to OECD data. Despite this, mental illness is still a taboo subject that Koreans seem reluctant to address. Government statistics released earlier this year showed that 1 in 4 Koreans experience a mental health disorder at least once in their life with only 1 in 10 pursuing professional help. Of those surveyed, a quarter said they suffered from disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and alcohol addiction at least once, while 12 percent said they suffered from a psychiatric illness in the past year.
However, there seems to be change emerging in how people deal with their emotional health here.
Dr. Park Jin-seng, a private practitioner in Gangnam, said that he has witnessed an increase in Koreans coming to his practice for help over the past few years. The reasons drawing people to seek help, he says, is the high expectations people feel society places on them.
“If you live and you work in Korean society there is a lot of competition and it’s a hard working society. It’s very stressful,” he said.
“Life is like a marathon so in the course of life, sometimes people can fail and sometimes people succeed, but in Korea if they fail sometimes they think they can’t rebuild.”
Numerous research studies and data confirm that Korea is a nation suffering from stress issues. Last year, a study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs found that, of the 7,000 people surveyed, over 90 percent said that they were under some form of stress, while a quarter said that they were under high stress. A study by Yonsei University Institute for Social Development released last year, which focused on the happiness level of children and young people, found that Korea’s youth were the least happy in the OECD.
In a bid to raise awareness of mental health issues and suicide prevention, the government initiated the National Youth Healing Center under the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2012. The service recruits youths with mental health issues, such as ADHD and depression, who are willing to participate in the treatment program for four months. This year the Ministry of Health and Welfare finished a yearlong suicide prevention campaign “Are you OK? Air kiss campaign” which included an array of celebrities.
In December the government announced an allocation of 48.2 billion won ($42.5 million) for suicide prevention and mental health projects, a 7.7 percent increase from the previous year.
However, a health policy overview of Korea last year by the OECD stated that Korea lags behind other countries in terms of mental health services and reports the third-highest excess mortality rates from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in the bloc of 34 countries.
While an increase in funds allocated to mental health is a positive sign, recent moves to strengthen mental health policies have caused controversy. The revision of the Mental Health Act, which came into effect in May, changes the criteria for involuntary committing a psychiatric patient. The change has come under fire from medical professionals, including both professor Park and doctor Park who say it complicates a system which is already lacking in resources.
Professor Park said that the lack of support available to psychiatric patients after they have been discharged from hospital means they could easily end up back in hospital or could potentially pose a risk to themselves or others.
As a way to combat this he recommends the government invest in training programs and residential facilities where caretakers can oversee that medication is being taken.
However, he doesn’t see this happening in the near future. For now, he believes more focus should be put on promoting mental health literacy to end the stigma surrounding it and funding research which can be used to give a voice to those suffering from a mental illness.
“In the current government, I think the mentally ill have the last status following other disabilities. They don’t have any capacity to raise their voices. I think it’s related to stigmatization against mental illness,” he said.
By Anita Mckay (firstname.lastname@example.org)