Monday, April 19, 2010

WaPo on South Korea's "sympathetic suicides"

Blaine Harden of the Washington Post has an article talking about the wave of suicides that have followed notable celebrity suicides in South Korea. He starts by talking about the severity of the problem:
And so it ends for 35 South Koreans a day. The suicide rate in this prosperous nation of about 50 million people has doubled in the past decade and is now the highest in the industrialized world.

The rate of suicide in most other wealthy countries peaked in the early 1980s, but the toll in South Korea continues to climb. Twenty-six people per 100,000 committed suicide in 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available). That's 2 1/2 times the rate in the United States and significantly higher than in nearby Japan, where suicide is deeply embedded in the culture.

Before South Korea got rich, wired and worried, its suicide rate was among the lowest in the industrialized world. But modernity has spawned inordinate levels of stress. People here work more, sleep less and spend more money per capita on cram schools than residents of the 29 other industrialized countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
At the end of the article he notes the imitative trend:
No studies have found a statistically significant increase in suicide among the nation's elite. Still, noisy news coverage of these deaths has caught the public's imagination, and that worries Ha, the psychiatrist.

Government data show that suicides can trigger copycat behavior. Choi Jin-sil's death triggered a 70 percent increase in the suicide rate. It lasted for about a month, resulting in 700 more deaths during that time than would normally be expected.

"Famous suicides have a really bad influence," Ha said.
Indeed, this is the same "veritable epidemic" I wrote about when I referred to the dire situation of suicide seeming normative and therefore a viable or even desirable course of action:
I have never seen "Boys Over Flowers," but I have heard plenty about the so-called "ubiquidrama." My greater concern is that suicide among these performers ends up modeling "acceptable" behaviors for everyday people in South Korea, where suicide is already at astronomical rates.

In other words, these public suicides of well-known figures have the disturbing effect of making the killing of oneself seem favorable and normative. And for people already not thinking straight, normative and normal seem to overlap.

In all seriousness, the entertainment industry in Korea needs to face this problem head on. Set up a task force or something and make sure that all the people who go on stage are checked for psychological problems and have easy and non-judgmental access to mental health care.

That last part is the hard part. Even more so than in the West, there is a tremendous stigma associated with seeing a mental health professional. The solution itself may have to rely on media images to make this brave act itself normative: Perhaps get a celebrity who knows she/he needs help and do a reality program where she/he seeks and gets the help that is needed and comes out the other end much better.
This is a national tragedy that needs more attention paid to it. Now.

Sheesh. This is my second post on suicide today.

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