Wednesday’s brutal arson and murders in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province, which left five people dead and 15 others injured, put the spotlight on the glaring shortcomings in the country’s mental health care system.
The total budget designated for mental health this year stands at 171.3 billion won ($150.1 million), accounting for 1.5 percent of the government budget for public health, data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare showed Monday.
The portion of the budget spent on mental health treatment falls far below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 5 percent.
Showing a shortage in manpower, the number of workers at 243 mental health care centers nationwide tallied 2,524 people, while the number of patients registered as in need of special care stood at 61,220 people, ministry data showed.
“There have been signs of dangers all along. Though individual reports made by the neighbors were minor cases, the level of danger felt by people around him were high,” Rep. Pyo Chang-won of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea told The Korea Herald by phone.
Pyo has been calling for the government to bolster support for patients with mental disorders to “get help before you get caught.”
“The lack of public mental health care centers and medical professionals where families or the patient could ask for help largely led to the incident. The absence of a preventative legal measure for those with severe mental disorder is also a serious problem the National Assembly has to address,” Pyo added.
According to Jinju Police, Ahn In-deuk, 42, who is suspected to have set his apartment on fire before going on a stabbing rampage last week, had been treated for schizophrenia 68 times between January 2011 and July 2016.
The initial treatment began after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2010 during a trial for hurting a pedestrian with a weapon for “looking (at him) in a disturbing way.”
Ahn, however, stopped receiving treatment about two years and nine months ago.
In an interview with local media, the suspect’s mother insisted on strict punishment, saying, “I am very, very sorry for (my son) committing such a big incident. … I am deeply sorry to the bereaved families.”
In the wake of the brutal incident, calls are growing for a revision to the law concerning involuntary hospitalization of patients with mental disorders.
Under the law, families or guardians are required to submit a medical record of the patient to receive court authorization for involuntarily hospitalization. However, the medical law mandates a letter of attorney by the patient for the hospital to issue a copy of the patient’s record.
Based on police questioning of Ahn with a profiler, police suspect Ahn’s antagonism against society escalated after his back injury about 10 years ago while working at a factory.
Ahn had requested his injury be classified as an industrial accident, but the request was rejected.
According to local reports, Ahn was also denied industrial accident status when he hurt his back in his early 20s working at a different factory.
By Kim Bo-gyung (firstname.lastname@example.org)