Giving young people the tools for life
There is a novel that never fails to be mentioned whenever suicide is discussed. It is “The Sorrows of Young Werther” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. One spring day, Werther meets Lotte, a beautiful young girl, and falls in love with her. But she is engaged to another man, so Werther leaves town and when he returns, Lotte is married. Disheartened, Werther commits suicide by shooting himself. The novel created a stir as soon as it was published in 1774 and copycat suicides followed. There were so many suicides that Goethe himself had to ask people to stop killing themselves. The term “Werther effect” was coined by American sociologist David Philips in 1974 to describe copycat suicides.
According to Statistics Korea, our suicide rate in 2009 was 31 people per 100,000. It goes a little lower when converted to the OECD standard, 28.4, but it is still the highest among OECD countries. It is 2.5 times higher than the average rate among OECD countries and 7.4 times more than Hungary, which ranks second.
We’ve had suicides committed by a former president, an entertainer and a writer who was known as a “happiness guru.” Life’s hardships coupled with a harsh educational environment have combined to give us 35 suicides per day, or 12,000 suicides a year. That’s twice the number of deaths from traffic accidents.
Four students of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology recently committed suicide one after another. At Seoul National University, too, similar incidents take place every year. Suicide is so common among young people in their 20s that it is the cause of death for about 40 percent of them every year.
But why? First, many are struggling to live up to the high expectations of those around them. Many students were regarded as the smartest in their high school and they feel frustrated when they get to college and find they are no longer at the top of the class. But there must be more to it than that. So before we watch any more young people kill themselves, we adults need to look more deeply at who they are and what they need. And rather than just pushing them to excel at school, we should give them the tools they need to excel at life.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Shim Shang-bok