Things are looking up for depressed in Korea

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Things are looking up for depressed in Korea

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Some 1.1 million Koreans suffering from mild depression who have been legally classified as mental patients will soon be excluded from the list as having a psychological disorder.

“We decided to amend the Mental Health Act this year to classify only those suffering from major psychological illness, such as auditory hallucinations and amnesia as mentally-ill patients [and exclude those suffering from depression],” said a high-ranking official from the Ministry of Health and Welfare on Wednesday.

“In other [developed] countries, depression is seen as being ‘heart sick’ and anyone can have it, but in Korea, people with depression are regarded as mentally ill, which restricts them socially.”

The ministry official said that it will announce comprehensive measures related to protecting the country’s mental health this month before amending the related act this year.

According to the health and welfare ministry, currently, there are around 400 illnesses that are categorized in the mental disease category, including personality disorder, alcohol and drug addictions, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Schizophrenia and depression also belong in the same category.

Based on the country’s Medical Act and State Public Officials Act, patients suffering from 77 of the 400 illnesses are prevented from obtaining state licenses and qualification certificates such as a doctor’s certificate.

Private insurance companies have also been reluctant to offer prescriptions to patients suffering from depression without stating any concrete evidence or reason for rejecting their applications.

Compared to other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korea’s suicide rate is among the highest - 31.2 Koreans per every 100,000 - but the country’s rate of mental illness treatment is 15.3 percent of all people suffering from mental illness, which is half the OECD average.

“There should be no more discrimination against people with depression, which is an illness similar to the flu,” said Kim Yoon, a medical management professor at Seoul National University.

Woo Jong-min, a mental health professor at Inje University Paik Hospital, also said, “Depression is a common illness in Korea, along with insomnia and panic disorders, but it is labeled a virulent disease.”

He said the overall awareness on depression should change.

For example, a 40-year-old surnamed Kim who has been under extreme stress from work, lost 7 kilograms of weight (15 pounds) in two weeks recently. Every day, he was restless and anxious and he could hardly fall asleep. Though he knew depression had hit him, he had no intention of visiting a psychiatrist, thinking, “Why do I have to go there [where mentally ill people go]?”

Kim, however, wasn’t able to overcome his depression and killed himself in the end.

A company worker surnamed Jung, 35, also suffered from depression after she gave birth. She was inexplicably anxious and had insomnia.

Jung did receive treatment from a psychiatrist, but she borrowed her mother’s name when filling out the application form as she feared a record of her visit to a psychiatrist would impede her career in the future.

“It is a relief that the government is boosting efforts to change the overall social impression of patients who suffer from depression as of late by excluding them from being classified as mentally ill but it should have done this much earlier,” said Professor Woo.

By Shin Sung-sik, Park Su-ryon[angie@joongang.co.kr]

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