How to prevent suicides
The author is head of the Suicide Prevention Center of the Citizens’ Alliance for Safe Living and an adjunct professor at Gachon University.
In his New Year’s address, President Moon Jae-in announced three initiatives aimed at reducing Korea’s mortality rate: suicide prevention, improving traffic safety and reducing industrial accidents. His proposed goal was to cut deaths by 30 to 50 percent.
Fortunately, fatalities from traffic accidents have decreased by 7.2 percent through June compared to the same period last year. Suicide, on the other hand, is another issue. The self-inflicted death of a celebrity last year could lead young people to follow suit. On Instagram and YouTube, they are exposed to videos of self-harm, and in popular music, suicide and self-injury are often mentioned.
From December 2016 to March 2017, 30 young people killed themselves. Between December 2017 and March 2018, the number rose to 45. After the media reported the location, method and motive of a popular politician’s suicide in July, there were concerns about imitations. I am especially worried about people struggling with financial issues who might take their own lives.
In an effort to lower the suicide rate, the government established a suicide prevention policy department in the Ministry of Health and Welfare and holds bimonthly vice-ministerial and working-level meetings presided over by the head of the Office for Government Policy Coordination. In May, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon attended a forum on the value of life consisting of 40 groups from business, labor, medicine, religion and the media. But there has not been a visible plan.
In August, I went to Japan to learn about its suicide prevention measures. Japan lowered its suicide rate by 37.3 percent from 34,000 in 2003 to 21,302 in 2017. In Japan, the cabinet coordinated the overall suicide prevention policy. There is an organization of civil servants in charge of suicide prevention at 47 metropolitan governments and 1,700 local governments. In each region, a closely-knit council of doctors, lawyers, teachers, former civil servants and employment specialists identify high-risk groups and offer consultation and relief. When a hospital receives an attempted suicide case, a civil servant in charge of suicide prevention is sent to the hospital to provide appropriate support. Administrative services for families of suicide victims are also offered. These efforts have contributed to lowering the suicide rate.
And what about Korea? Aside from Seoul and some local governments, there is no suicide prevention group in most of the country’s cities and provinces. The heads of agencies have little will to address the issue. Mental health and wellness centers contracted by local governments handle suicide-related issues along with mental wellness. However, the main focus is on mental health, and the amount of staff and budget for suicide prevention is not enough to provide substantial measures.
Local Japanese governments became more involved in suicide preventions because of Life Link, a civic group led by Yasuyuki Shimizu, a former producer at Fuji TV. The organization created a stir by surveying the suicide prevention measures of local governments in 2008 and 2009 and releasing the results to the media. After the report, local government heads personally attended suicide prevention courses and showed determination to implement preventative measures.
Sept. 10 was World Suicide Prevention Day. It was designated in 2003 by the World Health Organization and International Association for Suicide Prevention to advocate the value of life. Korea has the highest rate of death by suicide — 25.6 per 100,000 — among OECD members. Now, suicide is no longer a personal issue. We need to focus on the social structure and environmental factors that lead to suicides.
The government needs to prepare and implement prevention measures. Local government heads should also actively join efforts to lower the suicide rate. Civic groups and the government should work together to implement substantial measures that incorporate regional characteristics. Only after all this can the administration’s promise to lower the suicide rate by 30 percent within its term come true.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 11, Page 29