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 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 a 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.”
And so it ends for 35 South Koreans a day. The suicide rate in this prosperous nation of about 50 million has doubled in the past decade and is now the highest in the industrialised 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 US and significantly higher than in nearby Japan, where suicide is deeply embedded in the culture.
Before it got rich, wired and worried, its suicide rate was among the lowest in the industrialised 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 industrialised countries that belong to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Still, it remains a taboo here to admit being stressed. The word “psychiatry” has such a negative connotation that many leading hospitals have created departments of “neuro-psychiatry,” in the hope that people perceive care as medical treatment and not as a public admission of character failure.
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