Choi Jin-young hanged himself last month with an electrical cord. The 39-year-old actor wasn’t getting any work in local TV, police said, and he had been depressed since the suicide of his famous older sister.
The sister, Choi Jin-sil, was known as the “nation’s actress.” When she hanged herself in her bathroom in October 2008, a wave of sympathetic suicides swept South Korea and 1,700 people took their lives the following month.
Seven months later, former president Roh Moo-hyun jumped off a cliff to his death. “I can’t begin to fathom the countless agonies down the road,” he wrote in a note.
Then 20-year-old Chanel model, Daul Kim, killed herself, posting a blog entry that said: “Mad depressed and overworked.” Another said: “The more I gain, the more lonely it is.”
In 2008, there were 35 suicides per day; which is a suicide roughly every 40 minutes. The suicide rate in a nation of 50 million people has doubled in the past decade and is now the highest in the industrialized world.
The suicide rate in 1982 was 6.8 per 100,000 people, similar to rates reported in Spain, Greece and Italy. The countries did not see their suicide rate spike during periods of economic difficulty like Korea did in 1997. The rate of suicide peaked in the 1980s for other wealthy countries, but the numbers in South Korea continue to climb. Twenty-six people per 100,000 committed suicide in 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available); 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.
The government is hoping to decrease the rate to below 20 per 100,000 people by 2013, but there has been little progress. Korean society considers suicide and depression personal matters.
“This is the dark aspect of our rapid development,” said Ha Kyooseob, a psychiatrist at Seoul National University College of Medicine and head of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention. “We are unwilling to seek help for depression. We are very afraid of being seen as crazy.”
Many leading hospitals have created departments of “neuro-psychiatry” in hope that the public perceives treatment as a medical condition and not a public admission of “crazy.”
Attempts by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and suicide prevention to interview families of suicide victims has yielded little information. “When we go to the families and ask questions about why it happened, they say to us, ‘Do not kill him twice,’ ” Ha said. “We have tried to interview hundreds of families, but we have only been allowed to talk to a few of them. If one is dead from suicide, everything is a secret.”
Suicide is the leading cause of death among South Koreans in their 20s and 30s, and it is the fourth leading cause of death overall, after cancer, stroke and heart disease.
Incidents of suicide are increasing among the rural elderly that is probably driven from isolation, illness, and poverty. Police investigators say that the long hours young South Koreans spend online provides opportunity for young people to meet and plan group suicides, even if they live in different cities.
Finland was once seen as the suicide capital of the world and was the world’s first country to take a concerted approach for suicide prevention. The suicide rate in Finland rose continuously for 30 years since 1950 but a nationwide program between 1986 and 1996 reduced the rate from 30.3 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 20.4 by 2004. The Korean government is hoping to decrease the rate to below 20 per 100,000 people by 2013.
Korean celebrity suicides have caught the eye of the public and the news media is caught up in a flurry of chain reaction suicides among the famous.
Former President Roh Moo-hyun leaped to his death in May 2009. The former democracy activist whose term had ended in 2008 was said to be under intense pressure and allegations that he and his family had accepted $6 million in bribes when in office. After his death, Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han announced the investigation would end.
Roh faced police allegations regarding if him or his wife had taken money from a wealthy shoemaker. Roh said they took $1 million, which was to settle a debt and was not a bribe. He said he believed the $5 million given to a relative was a legitimate business investment.
The note of the suicide text, released by the Yonhap news agency, said: “The rest of my life would only be a burden for others. I can’t do anything because I’m not healthy. I can’t read books, nor can I write. Don’t be too sad. Isn’t life and death all part of nature? Don’t be sorry. Don’t blame anybody. It’s fate. Please cremate me. And please leave a small tombstone near home. I’ve long thought about that.”
The soap actor Choi Jin-young’s suicide generated front-page headlines, reminding the public of the suicide of his beloved sister, who killed herself after becoming distressed over Internet rumors that linked her to the suicide of another celebrity, comedian Ahn Jae-hwan.
No studies have found a statistically significant increase in suicide among the nation’s elite. However, the news’ fixation on the suicides worries Ha.
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.