South Korea Sees Spike in Suicide, Self-Harm During Pandemic

Rates of self-harm, depression, and suicide have increased significantly among South Koreans during the coronavirus pandemic, government statistics revealed this week.
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Rates of self-harm, depression, and suicide have increased significantly among South Koreans during the coronavirus pandemic, government statistics revealed this week.

Instances of self-harm in South Korea in the first half of 2020 increased by almost 36 percent compared to the same period last year, Deutsche Welle (DW) reported on Tuesday.

“A record 595,724 people have been treated for depression, up 5.8 percent on the first six months of 2019, while suicide rates have also risen,” DW said.

Dr. Park Chanmin, founder of the Seoul Central Mental Health Clinic, told DW that he has noticed a mental health crisis emerge in South Korea during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The biggest worry that I hear about now, the biggest insecurity is about people’s futures at this difficult time,” Dr. Park said.

“Since the start of the pandemic, people have become more and more worried about their jobs, they are seeing their incomes falling, and that is having an impact on their day-to-day lives,” he explained. “This is a trend that appears to be emerging.”

South Korean health authorities have noted an increase in the number of suicides by women, in particular, during the pandemic.

“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,” the city’s official in charge of suicide prevention told the Korea Herald last week.

Between January and June this year, 1,924 women in their late teens and 20s committed suicide, according to data from the Korea Suicide Prevention Center. This indicates a 7.1 percent increase from last year’s figure of 1,796 suicides for the same demographic.

The suicide rate among young women rose by 17.9 percent in April at the height of South Korea’s coronavirus outbreak, according to the report. The peak infection period forced South Korea to impose strict lockdown measures that likely caused depression and anxiety among young Koreans accustomed to dynamic social lives.

“Schools and universities were shut down, companies were attempting to arrange for employees to work from home, firms were going under, and opportunities to go out with friends or family for meals or drinks simply vanished due to the virus,” DW notes.

Korean sociologist Shin Jin-wook offered some possible explanations for the disproportionate rise in suicide rates among women during the pandemic.

“Women [in South Korea] are more vulnerable to violence, discrimination, and poverty – which may contribute to suicidal risks,” he told the Korea Herald. According to the report, women are disproportionately represented in South Korea’s low-paying, informal workforce.

“Help from public sectors has been cut off or limited due to physical distancing,” Shin added. “But until the crisis is over and we have the full picture, it will be hard to find clear answers,” he cautioned.

According to recent data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea has the highest per capita suicide rate of the 35 OECD member countries. Suicide has ranked as the number one cause of death for young people in South Korea since 2007.

In nearby Japan, where suicide rates are among the highest in the world, health authorities recorded a marked decrease in suicides during the pandemic. From February to June, suicides in Japan decreased by 13.5 percent compared to the average for that time period, according to a study published on September 2 led in part by the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology. The study’s researchers said reduced working hours combined with government financial aid during Japan’s peak coronavirus lockdown periods likely caused a reduction in overall stress for Japanese, which may have contributed to the drop in suicides. The culture’s strict work ethic – with an emphasis on long hours in the office – has been blamed in the past for the country’s high rate of suicide.

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