[Viewpoint]Tackle suicide with human contact

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[Viewpoint]Tackle suicide with human contact

Another celebrity suicide: the death of Jang Ja-yeon over the weekend opens up once more a wound in Korea that is not healing.

There are no easy answers to the suicide crisis afflicting Korea, or the depression that more often than not seems to compel so many to take their own lives. Much has been written about why Korea has the highest suicide rate among developed countries - 26 per 100,000 people - according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and why talking about mental health issues is still such a taboo here.

It’s a tragedy not just because so many people die such lonely deaths, and not just because Korea is losing its most valuable resource, its people, a very worrying prospect given the dangerously low birthrate here.

It’s a tragedy because many of these deaths might have been prevented if there had been someone to talk to. But if you are feeling suicidal in Korea, who do you turn to?

One thing that struck me talking to friends and colleagues in Seoul about the recent debate over suicide is the apparent lack of telephone
helplines for people experiencing distress.

They exist, I’m told, but they don’t seem to be in the public eye. In fact, when I explained how such a service works in the United Kingdom, where I was born, I was met with bafflement. But back home, such a service is commonplace.

The Samaritans is a confidential emotional support service for people in the United Kingdom, and also for people overseas, who use the e-mail service.

Posters for the Samaritans service are plastered all over towns and there are regular awareness campaigns on television. Basically, if you’re in emotional trouble, it’s not difficult to find the number and call.

The service is confidential and anonymous, operated by unpaid volunteers who listen to people who are in crisis, who are in despair, and who may be contemplating suicide.

The organization doesn’t give advice and doesn’t tell people they must not kill themselves. The policy is to encourage self-determination.

Essentially, the Samaritans allows people to unload whatever problems are making them feel sad, depressed, lonely, desperate, worried and so on, without being judged in any way. As one volunteer from England told me recently, “We give callers time to talk - we allow silences and we let people cry if that’s all they want to do.”

The volunteers try to get callers to explore their feelings by prompting them to talk through their problems. This process often leads callers, simply by talking things through, to see a way of coping with these problems, and even of solving them.

A volunteer with the Samaritans cannot judge you or your actions. This is where the service differs from other forms of counseling or help, such as doctors or priests.

Doctors might prescribe drugs, which can lead to problems of chemical dependency, and people from religious organizations might exacerbate the problem by pointing out that suicide is a sin, which could add to a person’s stress.

In 2006, according to data supplied by the Samaritans, 4,191 people in England killed themselves, a 10 percent decline in the last decade. There is clearly still a problem there, but one that is dwarfed by the 12,000 who took their own lives in Korea in 2007.

It’s not easy to say whether the Samaritans makes a difference, but the sheer volume of callers suggests that there is a need for the service. In 2007, the organization received 5,319,462 contacts by phone, e-mail, letter and face-to-face at branches, prisons and festivals. About 90 percent of contacts were by phone, indicating the importance of human contact.

Could a similar confidential, nonjudgmental, anonymous helpline work in Korea? I don’t see why not. Humans are all basically the same, social animals who need emotional support in times of crisis. There would be issues over funding, training of volunteers and promotion, but does anyone have any better ideas to try to stop people killing themselves in Korea? If they do, I have not heard those solutions yet.

It’s not easy admitting to depression and suicidal feelings, but talking often helps, if someone’s prepared to listen.

For more information about the Samaritans in Britain, check out www.samaritans.org.

*The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Michael Gibb
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