Drivers facing anxiety in aftermath of suicideAbout a year ago, Choe Jae-heon, 21, boarded a subway train at Sindorim station. As the train was pulling to a stop at Guro station, it jerked to a stop. Although there was no announcement, Mr. Choe said he heard loud voices from outside the car but thought the problem was a mechanical malfunction.
But a few moments later, he said, he heard a horrifying scream, a woman’s scream, from under his subway car. Finally, the driver opened the doors of the first car and told the passengers to move forward and leave the train. Mr. Choe joined the throng and noticed a crowd gathering down the track. “Unlike other people, I didn’t want to see what happened,” he said. “I left the station quickly. All I wanted to do was call my sister and tell her always to stay behind the safety line in the subway stations.”
He added, “I could not get over hearing that scream for a long time. I wondered what it would be like to be a driver and have to see everything.”
What Mr. Choe witnessed was one of the 54 suicide attempts last year on Seoul’s subway system, and things are not getting any better. In the first nine months of this year, 46 more persons have thrown themselves in front of subway trains in attempts to end their lives. Most succeed.
Korea has the highest rate of suicide, more than 25 per 100,000 people per year, of the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of economically developed nations. While those 46 suicide attempts on the subway system are only a small portion of the total, the very public nature of the venue (see sidebar) makes them stand out.
The Seoul subway system is one of the busiest in the world. It carries 4.6 million passengers a day.
Choe Young-hyeop, 43, is a subway driver who has seen five people throw themselves in front of his train. He says the trauma is always new and always difficult to deal with. The most recent incident was at Hongik University station in northern Seoul, when a man jumped in front of his train and laid down on the tracks.
He said that while he knows intellectually that he was not to blame, he still feels guilty. “It was my train that killed a person,” he said. “I wasn’t able to sleep for at least a few weeks.”
“Those incidents have made me paranoid while I’m driving a train,” he continued. “When I pull into a platform, my heart drops to see people horsing around near the safety line. Approaching the platform is always frightening; I think about the possibility that another person will jump off. Even when I’m driving my car, I never drive in the right lane so that no one can jump off the sidewalk into my path.”
Mr. Choe said he thinks there is a misconception about committing suicide in the subway. It’s not a painless, guaranteed death; “I’ve seen some who survived,” he said grimly.
For some years, drivers involved in such an incident got a single day off to recover. Although the rest period is now three days, Mr. Choe said that wasn’t enough. “I had to go to the police to make statements and to the subway’s safety office. I had to relive the scenes in those statements, and it was very difficult. Those three days are no time to recover.”
Research by Woo Jong-min, a psychiatrist at Inje University Seoul Paik Hospital, found that 60 percent of the 628 subway drivers he interviewed in a study have witnessed suicide attempts on the job.
Dr. Woo and his team said that 51 of those 375 drivers who had witnessed suicides showed serious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder because of the events. They showed symptoms such as paranoia, frequent nightmares and flashbacks to the incident. They said those symptoms, if left untreated, could result in depression or personality disorders ― or even in suicidal tendencies.
According to Dr. Woo, eight out of 10 of the drivers whom he found to be suffering from panic attacks were those who had been involved in a subway suicide.
“This is a serious safety issue,” Dr. Woo said. “The increase in suicide cases can cause serious mental problems for drivers, and they are responsible for carrying massive numbers of riders daily.”
A public venue, a last statement
Kwon Jung-hye, a professor of psychology at Korea University, calls subway suicide the “last statement” of troubled minds.
“Compared to jumping off a high rise building or drinking a toxic chemical, jumping off the subway platform can draw more eyes. Every suicide has some sort of message, but suicide on the subway is an emphatic way to get society’s attention,” she said, adding that desperate people tend to see the world from a very narrow point of view. “Death seems the only option for them,” she said. “Most suicides, even though they look spontaneous, are planned ahead of time.”
Kang Seon-hi, a manager at the Seoul Metropolital Subway Corporation, says most of the suicides in his company’s facilities are committed by the people who tend to use the subway ― working and middle-class Koreans. She also notes that suicide by throwing oneself under a train is not a new phenomenon.
“Even in “Anna Karenina,” by Leo Tolstoy, the heroine throws herself on a railroad track,” she said.
by Choi Sun-young