In the dark of night, a calming voiceSuicide has become a national trend.
From a mother despairing over debts who throws herself and her children from a tall building, to a sexually harrassed soldier who takes his own life, to the fatal leap of Hyundai Asan chairman Chung Mong-hun, stories of suicide seem as prevalent lately as tales of car accidents on busy roads. In fact, almost twice as many people took their own lives in Korea last year as died in traffic accidents, according to the National Police Agency.
Experts say a person bent on suicide is apt to drop hints to friends, family or acquaintances about his despair.
But what if a person feels he has no one to turn to?
Now in its 27th year of operation, Lifeline Korea, a 24-hour hotline offering free counseling, tries to suicidal people that bit of support. (The toll-free number is 1588-9191.) For the desperate, the hotline can be a way to vent anger, frustration and hopelessness without having to divulge their identity.
Kim Un-ho, 58, who has been a counselor at Lifeline Korea from the beginning, has seen an increase in the number of calls to the hotline this year.
“Among the callers, only 5 percent or so are seriously considering suicide,” Mr. Kim says. “Most just have personal problems they want to let out.
“People going through difficult periods in their lives desperately need a valve to release their sorrows.”
Calls for help
A stern-looking man with a calming voice and relaxed demeanor, Mr. Kim works the graveyard shift at Lifeline Korea on a recent night, sitting from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. in a booth not much bigger than a narrow closet. The room contains a desk, a chair, two telephones and an electric fan.
The night’s first two callers hang up immediately. “Some perverts call to see if a woman picks up to engage in phone sex, but they hang up when they hear my voice,” Mr. Kim explains, matter-of-factly.
The phone rings for the third time. Mr. Kim never picks up the phone right away. The reason, he says, is that hearing the phone ring a few times helps relax most callers.
“This is Lifeline, how can I help you,” Mr. Kim says. He starts taking notes ― time, nature of the caller’s problem ― in a log. Mr. Kim sounds empathetic. “Ah, yes. Is that what happened? That must feel awful.” He chuckles at times, and tries to soothe the caller with reassuring words. “Forget about it. Don’t let it eat you up.”
The fourth call seems to irk Mr. Kim. The caller talks endlessly about some kind of dispute with a member of her church. He tells the woman to ask her church’s deacon for more specific advice, then induces her to hang up.
“Sometimes, the problems are so petty that it’s really exasperating,” he says.
The calls keep coming until early morning. Mr. Kim listens, takes notes and dispenses advice and encouragement. He never yawns, not once.
Some people just need a pat on the back. “Don’t worry, time will heal all rifts,” Mr. Kim tells a woman who’s had a fight with her husband. Others have questions Mr. Kim cannot answer. “Let me give you a number to call with tax questions,” he tells a caller.
With the call after that, Mr. Kim’s tone suddenly changes.
“What is it that you want to say?” he asks. “When did you start having suicidal impulses? When did you start going to church?”
Politely, gently, Mr. Kim tells the caller that loneliness can be overcome. Soon, the tension in the room lifts; it seems Mr. Kim has helped put the caller’s mind at ease.
But he’ll probably never know for sure.
“The benefits of a hotline are that it guarantees anonymity, and one can call from anywhere, anytime, without the hassle of setting up an appointment,” he says.
“The downside is, since it is anonymous, it’s next to impossible to do follow-ups,” he continues. “I don’t know if a person that I have talked to has given up on killing himself, or if he went ahead and did it. Sometimes, if a client seems to be deeply troubled, I’ll refer him to a professional counseling center or clinic. In any case, it’s still hard to keep track.”
The most frustrating moments in his job, Mr. Kim says, are when callers demand direct advice. “Some of the queries people have are metaphysical matters that I could not possibly solve,” he says, sighing. “Counselors must never give direct answers to personal problems. Callers must determine for themselves what is right. We can encourage and form a rapport, but we must never tell them what to do.”
The danger of working the phones for so long, Mr. Kim says, is that one can begin to feel indifferent to callers’ suffering.
“I sometimes find myself listening to people’s problems without really sympathizing,” he says. “Even if the person is crying, I don’t respond with genuine compassion, because if I did so all the time, I would be emotionally exhausted.”
Mr. Kim says that there is one common denominator about the tens of thousands of calls he has received over the years: all of the callers, even the ones whose problems are petty, think their problems are immense. They think no one has it as bad as they do.
“The No. 1 reason for committing suicide is loneliness,” he says. “Although women attempt suicide more than men, men succeed more frequently. About three men kill themselves for every one woman.
“There are two types of suicides,” he explains. “One is chronic, the other is impulsive. The former refers to people who suffer from mental illnesses and have been considering suicide for a long time. The latter refers to people who are fine, even successful, one day but due to a sudden and painful hardship in their lives, they try to kill themselves in the heat of the moment.
“It’s much easier to prevent someone who is impulsively thinking of killing themselves than it is to stop someone who has considered it for a long time.”
People who call Lifeline have problems of all sorts, from the death of a loved one to money problems to suicidal depression. In any case, talking about the problem before it gets out of hand can help rid the caller of his fatalistic thoughts, Mr. Kim says. “Overcoming the initial crisis phase helps people to get on with their lives,” he says.
Lifeline Korea operates five shifts a day, with three volunteers working each shift. Those who volunteer for one of the four three-and-a-half-hour shifts between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. work two days per month. Those, like Mr. Kim, who work the graveyard shift put in 10 hours once a month.
“Ten hours is the maximum one could possibly do,” Mr. Kim says. “Otherwise, the counselor will become burned out with all the crank calls, the perverted sex talk and gruesome stories he has to listen to.”
About 7 out of 10 volunteers quit after their second or third year because of the negative talk. “It really gets to you sometimes,” Mr. Kim says, “but once you get through that third year, it becomes easier to deal with.”
The first few minutes of the conversation will determine whether the caller is serious or just fooling around. “That’s proof I’m a veteran counselor,” Mr. Kim says, grinning.
Founded by a Christian minister and modeled after an Australian hotline, Lifeline Korea has about 300 volunteers who work at its Seoul office, and another 3,000 or so at 11 branches across the country. Most of the volunteers are women. One woman, who has now been volunteering with Lifeline for more than 20 years, is a former client. She called Lifeline seeking help after the sudden death of her husband. After getting help from one of the counselors, she volunteered.
“She is now a brilliant counselor here,” Mr. Kim says.
Mr. Kim majored in social welfare studies at Chung-Ang University in Seoul and went to work for Holt Children’s Services in 1975, where he helped bring adopted babies to the United States and Europe. In his numerous trips abroad, he recalls being impressed by the volunteers who helped out at the airports.
“To Westerners, volunteering seems to be a way of life,” he says. “I read that nearly half the people in some countries take part in some kind of volunteer activity or another. It inspired me to do the same.”
In 1976, Mr. Kim became one of 160 volunteers who dedicated about 10 hours per month to the newly established Lifeline Korea.
“Back then, people were not used to volunteering because making ends meet took priority, but nowadays young people are half-forced to participate in volunteering, because it helps them when they apply to college.”
He still remembers an occasion, during his first few years with Lifeline, when he dissuaded a young woman who was about to commit suicide from acting on her impulse. “This woman had serious family problems. She called around 2 a.m. and told me she had a large amount of sleeping pills that she was about to take. But before she took them, she wanted to talk. She kept saying how there was no reason for her to live. I tried to buy time, talking to her for more than two hours, as patiently as I could.
“At dawn, I heard the church bells ring, and she said to me, ‘I’m tired now, I think I should sleep. Thank you so much for listening to me. This meant a lot to me, more than you know. I feel so much better.’ And then I knew she was going to be O.K. Somehow I knew.”
“As manager of the volunteer group, Mr. Kim leads by example, showing dedication and responsibility for what he does,” says Ha Sang-hoon, president of Lifeline Korea. “Not once has he skipped his night shift, and he must have done more than 3,000 hours of counseling by now. He is a man who makes one believe volunteering is a vocation that is beneficial to the volunteer, not just the people he helps.”
In the early days of Mr. Kim’s volunteer work ― the late ’70s ― callers mostly talked about their poverty. Most of the calls he receives these days, he says, are from women upset about their husbands’ infidelity.
“It’s not just men,” Mr. Kim says, “we are becoming the R.O.A. ― ‘Republic of Adultery.’ It has become so easy to have an affair, with the spread of the Internet. The problem with our society today is that family values are disintegrating. When family life becomes dysfunctional, it can bring confusion about values and lead to things like suicide.”
For more than three decades, Mr. Kim worked for a series of social welfare institutions. He is retired now. Mr. Kim’s wife is the principal of a private day care center; his three grown children are in college or working.
Twenty-seven years is a long time to volunteer at one place. So why does he keep doing it?
“My fulfillment comes from people telling me at the end of a conversation, ‘Thank you, you’ve been a great help,’” he says.
“I will continue until the day I die. I feel it’s a calling in my life.”
by Choi Jie-ho