The supposed positive correlation between the economic and social health of a nation is not as clear-cut as it seems, and the South Korean experience is proof. Sixty years down a path of rapid development interrupted only by the devastating financial crisis of 1997, the already existing stigma around mental health has been magnified by the intense familial and social pressures around education and career planning. Today, forty people commit suicide in South Korea every day, mostly comprised of the youth failed by an exclusionary system of higher education, but also the elderly similarly failed by a government pension measure that is too new to include a large portion of individuals in need.
Over the past sixty years, South Korea has seen some of the fastest and most profound economic growth in the world. With the changing economy came the advent of high-paying industry jobs and the emergence of a generation of South Koreans working, until very recently, 68-hour weeks. With the 1997 economic crash fresh in the minds of much of the older population, younger South Koreans are under immense familial and social pressures to secure a place in the few elite universities that provide access to high-paying jobs. Within this newfound “culture of educational masochism,” 74% of Korean youth attend after-school tutoring classes–known as Hagwons–in order to open doors to the very limited and selective universities. The reappearance of words like ‘gwarosa’ — death by overwork — in day-to-day dialogue is a testament to the inhumane levels of stress faced by South Koreans even after graduating from college.
It is an interesting yet complicated interplay between social values deeply set in preserving the family unit at all costs and Confucian ideas of grit, rigor, and stoicism that might be at the root of the crisis South Korea finds herself in today. The stigma around mental health in Korean families is a product of two concurrently acting forces: a desire for independent, self-driven achievement and the sanctity of the family unit and its image. The individual is pushed to set near-unachievable goals, but making one’s problems reflect poorly upon the family’s image remains considerably taboo. As a result, it is unsurprising that of the suicides committed over the past year attributed to diagnosable psychiatric illnesses, only 20% of the individuals accessed professional intervention.
Moving forward, the South Korean government will have to contend with how to strive towards economic growth in a manner that is psychologically and socially sustainable. However the government chooses to do so, it will have to move beyond the reactive support systems and welfare networks that South Korea’s National Suicide Prevention Plan has begun working on. Instead, there needs to be a shift in the culture surrounding education and employment, which should begin with policies that view mental health and suicide not as a problem of the individual, but as an effect of social institutions.