[Letters] The dismal suicide rate among the old

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[Letters] The dismal suicide rate among the old

Suicide, often considered the most tragic form of death, is garnering growing attention and concerns. According to the data on death in Korea published by the Korean Statistical Information Services, the suicide rate was increasing gradually through 1997 and suddenly started to rise in 1998, when the foreign currency crisis hit the country’s economy. The rate decreased somewhat but returned to the increasing trend from 2002, coinciding with the credit card crisis. In 2009, 15,413 Koreans committed suicide, up by 19.9 percent from the year before. It is no exaggeration to say that Korea is a country of suicides, as 40 citizens end their own lives every day on average.

A latest problem is the sharp increase in the suicides the elderly. The suicide rate of the men over age 65 increased by 5.4 times from 1990 to 2009. The increase is very large compare to other demographics, as the suicide rate in the 25-44 age group increased by 1.6 times and the rate in the 45-64 age group increased by 3.4 times. Elderly women also show a similar trend. Until the 1990s, the suicide rates in different age groups did not show much discrepancy, but lately, the suicide rate in the senior group increased nearly by three times compared to the younger generations.

It is noteworthy that the trend is contrasting to the suicide rates in Japan. The age group with highest suicide rate in Japan is not the elderly but the middle-aged group. The suicide rate in elderly females used to be very high in the past, but it is constantly and drastically decreasing in the last twenty years.

What have happened to the lives of the senior citizens of Korea in the past ten years or so? Medically speaking, a suicide is an outcome of depression. So we can name the increasing and aggravating depression among senior citizens as the primary cause. However, depression is the immediate cause of the suicide. We need to pay attention to the more fundamental factors that cause depression in the elderly population and lead to suicides. Here, we need to make a more profound, socio-cultural approach and analysis.

The society must not neglect such tragic choices of the elderly any longer. It is inevitable that the aging of the society would produce more senior population. If we don’t have social responses and follow ups to address the changes of the society, the suicide rate of the old people is bound to rise constantly. When we neglect the problem, we may be faced with disorganization of our social community. When there is a fire, we must extinguish the flame before considering other factors. The increasing suicide of the elderly is an urgent and desperate problem just like a house set on fire. There has to be a nationwide survey on the general health status and welfare conditions of the senior citizens. Based on the research, the government has to come up with a more fundamental and long-term plans. The quietly increasing suicides of the elderly illustrates the most tragic and solitary side of the modern society. It is a disgrace for the Republic of Korea to neglect the aging generation to end their own lives tragically when they are the ones who founded and made Korea’s today.

Kim Dong-hyeon, a professor of social and preventative medicine at Hallym University Medical School.
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