[Letters] A time to prevent unnecessary deaths

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[Letters] A time to prevent unnecessary deaths

“To run away from trouble is a form of cowardice and, while it is true that the suicide braves death, he does it not for some noble object but to escape some ill.” - Aristotle.

On April 7, another Korean life was lost to the silent epidemic that has been eating away at Korean society with increasing ferocity for more than 10 years now. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, more than 10,000 people commit suicide a year (the 2008 number was 12,858) which averages out to some 35 people taking their own lives a day. This places South Korea in the top position, with a rate that is nearly double the average among OECD countries according to OECD Health Data.

But this isn’t what people are talking about. Instead, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) fills the headlines with its president (for now), Suh Nam-pyo, facing excoriation for his policies, including the decision to charge students tuition who did not maintain a 3.0 grade average, and the implementation of English-only classes. Suh is to blame for the loss of three 19-year-olds and a 25-year old.

Yet, I wonder when the discussion will turn to the reality - these were four lives out of thousands a year. Thousands. Sure, KAIST provides an easy target to divert the attention from the larger issue: it’s hyper-competitive (reports say students there ranked in the top 1 percent on the national CSAT) and tuition can be fairly steep at a maximum of 7.5 million won a semester. Nonetheless, only 14 KAIST students have committed suicide since 2000. Fourteen. Perhaps someone should put things into context.

During classes at my hyper-competitive high school on Friday, we discussed the news and what it meant. In each class I asked, “why doesn’t anyone talk about the bigger problem?” and allowed my students to ponder. “It’s too big of a problem,” said one boy. “It’s embarrassing for Korea,” added a girl. “We’ve gotten used to it,” said another student. Many other students expressed similar feelings.

By and large the discussion led us to a list of things that must change: 1) education about mental illness must improve. Currently, one is either normal or mentally “ill” (and therefore no longer accepted by society.) Teaching that depression does not make someone a nutcase is essential. 2) the mental health infrastructure here has to improve as reports show that care is extremely expensive and often not effective. Moreover, all schools need a guidance counselor starting with high schools and colleges. 3) the social mores that say the norm is beating other people in cutthroat academic competition, always being number one and never failing have to be adjusted. 4) the excessive hours spent cramming for tests and, later, working for a company must be reduced. The fact that Korean students rank near the bottom in student satisfaction and that Korea has the highest work stress and lowest job satisfaction levels in the OECD should make this clear.

As a great nation, Korea cannot continue to watch this epidemic consume lives that shouldn’t be lost. From former President Roh Moo-hyun and actress Choi Jin-shil to Lee Yoon-hyung, the daughter of Samsung’s CEO Lee Gun-hee, the country has seen people who seem to have it all choose to end their own lives. But it’s the countless families and friends who have had a piece of their lives robbed from them and the society as a whole that people should consider when we hear about these four tragic and unnecessary deaths at KAIST. The time has come to start doing something to prevent the people who are right now thinking that suicide is the only solution from snuffing out their own life.

*Letters and commentaries for publication should be addressed “Letters to the Editor.” E-mailed letters should be sent to eopinion@joongang.co.kr.

John M. Rodgers, an English teacher at Daewon Foreign Language High School
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