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Suicide rates among young Korean women on the rise

If you are struggling to cope, you can reach the Ministry of Health and Welfare`s helpline at 1393. (123rf)
If you are struggling to cope, you can reach the Ministry of Health and Welfare`s helpline at 1393. (123rf)

More young Korean women have taken their own lives since the pandemic began early this year, new data shows, with experts calling for measures to address the challenges and experiences they face.

“The number of girls and young women dying by suicide has been increasing faster than boys or men of the same age. Psychological as well as socioeconomic fallout from COVID-19 may be accelerating that trend,” a senior official at the Korea Suicide Prevention Center said Thursday.

Between January and June this year in Korea, 1,924 girls and women took their own lives, according to the state-run center’s data. This is a 7.1 percent increase from the previous year’s 1,796. The figures for March and April, when COVID-19 infection numbers soared, the rates of increase compared to the same months last year were 17.3 percent and 17.9 percent, respectively.

Statistics indicate women contemplate and attempt suicide more often than men. Women experienced suicidal thoughts 1.5 times more frequently than men on average, a 2018 Ministry of Health and Welfare survey showed. Nearly 60 percent of people admitted to emergency rooms after attempting suicide last year were women.

For the first six months of Korea’s epidemic, Seoul women in their 20s attempted suicide four to five times more frequently than any other demographic, according to the city’s official in charge of suicide prevention. “Something very alarming is happening here,” he said. “As a society, we must pay more attention to this.”

Psychologist Yook Sung-pil, who leads the Korean Psychological Association’s over-the-phone counseling program for pandemic-related mental health issues, said women in late adolescence to young adulthood made up majority of those seeking help.

“Men are still more likely to die by suicide. But this gap is steadily narrowing,” he said. “Our response to mental health has to take into account the age and gender differences.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Kwon Jun-soo said mental health problems such as depression or anxiety were more prevalent in women. “Some 50 to 70 percent of suicide victims have a history of depression. And about six in 10 patients with depression are women,” he said.

According to an Institute for Society and Health’s December 2019 report, the increase in suicide rate among millennial women has outpaced their male peers by a large margin over the last 20 years.

Suicide is common across all demographics in Korea. But the recent rise in suicide deaths and attempts among youth -- particularly girls and women -- paints a worrying picture, said nursing science researcher Jang Soong-nang, who co-authored the report.

Jang, a professor at the Red Cross College of Nursing, said the latest figures expose existing problems made worse by the pandemic.

“Women are disproportionately represented in the low-paying, informal workforce. Women generally feel less safe in public spaces. Over two thirds of women say they have experienced some forms of abuse in a relationship,” she said. “Put simply, the Korean society is still harder on women.”

Identifying the specific causes will be hard, said sociologist Shin Jin-wook.

“Women are more vulnerable to violence, discrimination and poverty -- which may contribute to suicidal risks. Help from public sectors has been cut off or limited due to physical distancing,” he said. “But until the crisis is over and we have the full picture, it will be hard to find clear answers.”

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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