Suicide can be thwartedOn an April night in 2009, a group of people committed suicide at a pension in Gangwon province. The four men and women met in an Internet community and together made a very wrong choice. Because they met in cyberspace, the unusual incident caught the attention of the media and was featured as one of the top 10 news stories of the year.
Among the four who died that day was a young man only identified as “Q.” A newspaper quoted a police officer saying that Q died after struggling with debts.
The Korean Association of Suicide Prevention later conducted the country’s first-ever “psychological autopsies” of the victims, including Q. The association interviewed people who knew them and collected evidence, including suicide notes, to try to scientifically pin down the motives for their actions. Based on the report, Q’s profile was altered.
Truly, he had some overdue debts. Because he could not afford college tuition due to the poor financial situation of his family, he had hard feelings toward his parents. During his military service, he was beaten frequently by his seniors and also struggled at work after having endured physical violence. He was treated for depression and had only one close friend. Shortly before his suicide, in particular, he was considered to be depressed for about a month.
Every person’s life could be the subject of literature. Q’s life, alas, was like a short story. The cause of his suicide was not just debts. Various agonies were settled in his mind like a complex web. Before making the wrong choice, he drank heavily and cried out his pain. If anyone had noticed - and if anyone gave a word of comfort to him - the outcome would have been different.
Q is one of the 15,000 Koreans who commit suicide every year. The country’s suicide rate was 31 out of 100,000 in 2011, one of the worst in the world. It used to be seven out of 100,000 two decades ago. But the gloomy figure skyrocketed dramatically - like the drastic increase in the national income per capita - in what was soon called the “No. 1 secret of Korea.”
Is there any way to slow this scourge? A clue is hidden in the psychological autopsy of Q.
A first step can be made by looking into the perception of the causes of suicide. As we can see in Q’s case, there is often more than one cause. Poor grades, poverty or the pain of a broken heart can trigger depression, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to suicide. When the victim receives no social support or treatments during the agony, however, he or she may choose suicide as the last resort.
The No. 1 Korean secret resulted from an overwhelming feeling of emptiness of heart, stronger than the feeling of despair. Fierce competition to win first place, long work hours and short breaks work as barriers to the emergency exits that could lead us away from the problems.
And yet, the police, media and society come to the simple conclusion that a victim committed suicide because of a single reason. That feeds the misunderstanding that suicides are an issue we cannot resolve. It is true that society cannot help a person get a good grade, become rich or find a boyfriend or girlfriend. But if appropriate treatment, comports and assistance can reduce the number of people who are making the wrong choice, that is a very different story.
Dr. Ha Kyoo-seob, head of the Korean Association of Suicide Prevention, is an academic who believes suicides can be curtailed if we are determined to tackle the problem. He said those who tried to kill themselves often repeat their attempts. He presented research that providing routine counseling and proper therapies to high-risk groups has reduced suicide attempts by as much as 30 percent.
Korea improved its survival rate for stomach cancer with routine medical examinations. It escaped from the embarrassing distinction of having a high number of traffic accidents by making large investments. If the public servants, lawmakers and the president display strong determination, we can slow down the reckless dash by depressed Koreans toward death.
Many of those who survived suicide attempts wanted their pains to be over, but didn’t achieve it. Ultimately, they regretted their decision to attempt suicide and feel relief that they are alive. Asked what words of comfort could have stopped them from making the attempts, they answered: “Don’t worry. All things must pass.”
Intoxicated by our national growth, we were all captivated by speed and splendor. On the other side, a dark shadowy space grew. While we tried to address various challenges for the country, companies and society, we ignored some agonies about life. “They will just kill themselves, and how can we stop it?” we used to say - and the shadow got longer. That’s not the way.
Let’s believe in the power of the positive.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAngIlbo.
by Lee Kyu-youn