Where are the psychologists?
The author is a professor of psychology at the Seoul National University.
Korea overcame the horrors of war and the aftermath and attained glorious economic development and democratization since the Korean War. But Koreans are not so happy. Then is Finland, at the top of the happiness index, really a happy country? In the past, just like most other Nordic countries, Finland had high suicide rates and experienced a mental health crisis. But it got over the crisis relatively quickly.
Sudden industrialization results in mental health crisis. The OECD analyzes government policy and systems based on the mental health indicators, placement of professional workers, and mental health budgets. Finland focused on training licensed psychologists and now has the most psychologists among OECD member countries. The country reinforced its mental health care workforce and system with 109 psychologists per 100,000 people, lowering suicide rate and enhancing psychological wellness of the people.
The Netherlands, too, is a model country in mental health. Since the OECD began the mental health studies, the Netherlands has maintained a suicide rate lower than the average of 26 per 100,000 for decades. With 90 psychologists per 100,000, the Netherlands has been among the countries with the most number of psychologists. Korea and Japan have high suicide rates and are ranked at the lowest in terms of psychology and wellness indicators. Both countries have fewer than 4 psychologists per 100,000 people, far lower than the OECD average.
The OECD statistics show a reverse correlation between the suicide rate and the number of psychologists. In 2013, the OECD suggested the Korean government increase access to psychological services for all citizens. It advised that the professional workforce and systems should be improved to respond early to mental health issues when they are still minor. Koreans see doctors for common colds, but there is no systematic outlet to seek psychological help when people suffer mentally.
Until now, the suicide prevention law was legislated and a suicide prevention policy committee has been formed under the Prime Minister’s Office to coordinate among ministries. The second basic mental health plan is being implemented. However, the training and placement of professionals, which OECD members with good indicators focus on, are very limited in Korea.
Psychologists in OECD member countries play a key role in mental health by providing psychological services with scientifically proven effects. But there is no systematic basis for psychologists to work in Korea. This is the most vulnerable part of the mental health system of the country.
In fact, Korea is the only country with no system for psychologists among the OECD countries. The system is unrelated to political ideology or vocational interests. The National Assembly must promptly make a law on psychological services to provide quality psychology services and establish a system to enhance national competitiveness for citizens suffering psychologically.
On the 25th anniversary of its entry to the OECD, Korea should not delay implementing a psychologist system. Koreans deserve to enjoy quality psychological services provided by professionals.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.