[Viewpoint] Giving hope to the second bestAccording to psychiatrists, the prevalence of depression in Korea is far higher than expected. Culturally, Koreans are reluctant to have a record of receiving therapy, and considering the number of people who are not willing to see doctors but are in need of treatment, the number of depression patients may be at least twice the official statistics.
But experts say that the country’s social and cultural traditions pose no inherent risk for depression. One of the major causes of depression is social isolation, and it is hard to find another culture with as expansive and tight personal networks as Korea. At least on the surface, there is little room for social isolation.
In fact, we have to engage in personal relationships with friends and acquaintances from our hometowns, schools, various organizations and social groups. Koreans are actively involved in social life, and, in a way, it is rather hard to keep privacy. Therefore, it may be hard to understand why so many people suffer from depression when Korean society is neither driven by individualism like the West nor closed like communist societies in the past.
Sociologists explain that excessive competition is a major cause. In middle and high school, students are forced to engage in a fierce competition to get into good colleges and universities. Upon graduating, finding a job is war. Once you get a job, you have to fight for survival and promotions. Koreans live in an ocean of competition. As we grow up, we unconsciously learn that everyone around us is our potential competitor.
In reality, you cannot open up to other people in such an intense competitive environment. When you perceive others as rivals, revealing your pains and struggles may backfire. People around you may look like friends and colleagues, but you remain wary of others and consider them as threats, shutting yourself off from others.
When the mental isolation persists, it eventually creates negative feelings, and you try to hide truth and pain even from your spouse or family. In the end, you confine yourself to a remote, isolated island. It is the negative legacy of a culture that condones excessive competition.
Aside from depression, constant competition undermines the healthiness of the state. When members of society close their minds and turn their backs to others, society becomes harsher and wilder. In fact, you often find cynical and cruel expressions of hatred and various ungrounded rumors and accusations in cyberspace. Moreover, when elections come around, you witness the most unimaginable spectacle of political attacks.
Ultimately, the solution is to turn society’s focus from the results to the process. However, the conversion cannot be attained by changes from the bottom. When the only way to get into a prestigious college is a diploma and transcript from the best high school, no parent would be willing to give up accelerated instruction for whole-child education. When you can only get through the intense competition and find a good job at a major corporation with a diploma from the top college, no college student would give up beefing up his or her resume.
Unless companies change their priorities away from making more profits, companies will not hire employees with diversified talents and backgrounds. As long as the government continues to provide assistance only to large conglomerates and turn a blind eye to monopolies, no job seeker would favor small businesses over corporations.
The problem has to be solved by, in order, the government, companies, universities and families. The standard of measuring the country’s accomplishments should be an index that reflects the happiness of citizens, not the gross domestic product. Assistance for companies, such as tax exemptions and deductions, should be based on investments in and contributions to employment.
When the top layer initiates changes by creating more opportunities, competition in society in general will alleviate and people will value the process more than the outcome. When we neglect the problem and continue to promote fierce competition in which the winner takes all, we may be faced with enormous despair and anger that exceed the world’s highest depression and suicide rates.
What we need is the vision, hope, consolation and encouragement that we still have a chance in life even if we are not the best.
*The writer is a stock analyst and surgeon at the Andong New World Clinic.
By Park Kyung-chul