Career: Postdoctoral Fellow | Olin Neuropsychiatric Research Center | Hartford, Connecticut, USA
Raising Awareness About Suicide as a Mental Health Issue
A recent spate of suicides by some of South Korea’s top actresses has stunned the Korean people. In November 2008, Jin-Shil Choi, who had appeared in numerous Korean movies as well as a popular soap opera and was known as “Korea’s public actress,” committed suicide. Even before her death, news about suicides by popular Korean entertainers and actresses had shocked and saddened Koreans as well as people in other Asian countries. Even worse in Jin-Shil Choi’s case, about a year and a half after her suicide, her younger brother, Jin-Young Choi, followed her by killing himself.
According to a report from the Korean Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the South Korean suicide rate has increased dramatically over the past decade: from 50.8 per 10,000 citizens in 1998 to 112.9 in 2008. This is an increase of more than 122 percent over this 10-year period. Such increases have occurred in other Asian countries as well.
After arriving in 2008 to study psychology at Washington University, I have been struck by how even in America, with mental health policies that are well developed compared to Asian countries, suicide is a serious public health problem and affects people of all ages. In the United States, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 18 and
65. Every 16 minutes a person commits suicide in the United States. What I didn’t expect but have come to notice in the States is that there still is a “silent” stigma attached to mental health among the public. This has not disappeared with the relatively well-developed health policy in this country.
Why do an increasing number of people choose to end their lives? In most cases there is some untreated mental health issue behind the terrible decision. Research suggests that 90 percent of the people who commit suicide had a pre-existing mental illness or substance abuse problem at the time of their death. When untreated or inappropriately treated, depression in particular leads all too many people to make a terrible decision.
Another important, but easily ignored issue associated with suicide, is how “survivors” who are left behind should grieve and deal with the tragic consequences of a loved one’s death. Although it is a common belief that grief over a loved one’s death heals naturally over time, suicide usually leads “survivors” to feel fathomless guilt and unexplained emotion. In the case of Jin-Young Choi, his mother and friends said he had a hard time struggling with his pain and grief over his sister’s suicide. Although people around him urged him to get appropriate treatment for depression, he apparently rejected this. At that time, Jin-Young almost certainly suffered from depression, feeling responsible for his
sister as well as the children she left behind. His close friends reported his feeling of insufferable loss over his sister. The case of the late brother and sister of the Choi family reveal just one part of what is often ignored when it comes to mental health issues surrounding suicide.
Should we consider the late Jin-Shil’s suicide death to be nothing more than a family tragedy? I think not. As a McDonnell Scholar and graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Washington University, I believe it is crucial to promote awareness about suicide and its prevention. It is never acceptable in any culture as a way to end one’s life, but instead is a serious public health problem that must be addressed.
In Asian societies such as Japan and Korea, there is implicit social agreement that makes suicide somewhat acceptable as a way of proving one’s innocence or acceptance of responsibility for some perceived misdeed. Given this, the media should pay particularly careful attention to how they cover the suicide of a well-known figure. Such news can have a huge impact. After news of the entertainer siblings’ two suicides was reported, the number of people who committed suicide in South Korea doubled for a short period.
It would be desirable for the media not to limit their role to reporting the simple fact of such suicides. Instead, they could also use the occasion to report on the major mental health issues behind suicides, including unrecognized and untreated depression.
This could be the perfect opportunity to explain to the public the importance of mental health issues associated with suicide and its prevention.
It will be important to develop public policies and support for suicide prevention in Asian countries like Korea. It is only through such policies that the society will be able to address suicide-related mental health problems in a systematic way. Although insurance coverage for mental health treatment is not a panacea, it would at least mean that help is accessible to someone who needs professional services. In the reality that Korea presents today, even if an individual is ready to pay the price of being labeled as a “weird person” with mental illness, he or she faces another hurdle; namely how to pay for the expensive, private fees to get appropriate treatment.
Going back to the late Choi brother and sister, we should view this heartbreaking episode as more than a family tragedy. Recently, the dramatic increase in suicide has raised awareness of how crucial it is to address this often-ignored and untreated mental health issue. What if those people who committed suicide had received appropriate professional help? It is hard to imagine how many lives could have been saved and how much pain their survivors could have been spared.