In a country plagued with high suicide rates, there is still surprisingly a lack of informed awareness about mental health. Pervasive stigma surrounds depression and therapy. The former is still commonly perceived lightly as a passing mood, an exaggeration, a passing abnormality; there is little awareness about the usefulness of the latter.
Since 2003, South Korea has had the highest suicide rate among OECD countries — for thirteen consecutive years. According to Hong Chang-hyeong, the director of the Korea Suicide Prevention Center, the country hasn’t always had such a severe suicide problem. The suicide rate has tripled over the past 25 years, particularly after the IMF crisis in the late 1990s. Among the many factors contributing to the problem are various economic crises, global and domestic, coupled with the culture of cut-throat competitiveness and consequential stress.
“There’s no such thing as petty suffering,” said Seobam, the director of a counseling center and a webtoon artist noted for her series on depression. “If you have a small thorn under your nail, that’s what you think about the whole day. It’s the same with mental health. If you have even a small speck inside you, no matter how small, it isn’t petty. Think how freer your life would become once you remove the speck.”
In the video above, she informs the public that depression is a medically recognized condition, treatable through therapy and/or medication. The stigma unnecessarily aggravates the problem, and silences the voices of those who need to be heard.
One persistent stigma is that records of having received psychiatric help prohibit the patient from getting employed. “It sounds like an urban legend,” Seobam said. “Yes, your clinical records remain, especially if you receive insurance benefits. But it’s impossible for private companies to open the insurance records of individual employees. And therapy doesn’t even apply to this situation, since you can’t get insurance for it.”
To be fair, there are still realities that prove the urban legends right — for example, insurance companies have rejected clients with a history of psychiatric problems.
Last month, Jonghyun, a member of the popular K-pop group SHINee, committed suicide. His death has sparked a nationwide debate about depression and the usefulness of therapy. It’s a debate that requires not only sensitivity towards those that are suffering in the dark, but a critical reflection of South Korea’s own prejudices toward mental health.
Editor’s Note: You can receive basic — and often free — psychiatric help at public mental health centers available throughout most districts and cities in South Korea. The Korean Counseling Psychological Association offers a list of English-speaking services for foreigners living in South Korea.
Cover image: (Source: Tumisu via Pixabay, CC0 Creative Commons)