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Suicide grows to crisis level in South Korea

It is the leading cause of death for people in their 20s and 30s. Experts cite increased stress and a weak support system.

February 18, 2007|Burt Herman | Associated Press Writer

SEOUL — Dr. Lee Hong-shick saw signs of trouble while visiting a hospital emergency room. The psychiatrist witnessed more and more people with slashed wrists or stomachs full of drugs from suicide attempts, and was shocked to see they were treated and sent home without further attention.

So Lee founded the Korean Assn. for Suicide Prevention and has become one of South Korea's leading voices calling attention to a troubling increase in suicides.

"Someone who slits their wrists, they just get stitched up. [But] the main problem is why they decide to attempt suicide," Lee said in his office at Yonsei University in Seoul. "This should not be seen as an individual's problem, but society should help these people."

The rate of suicides in South Korea soared to 24.7 per 100,000 people in 2005, according to the latest statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Others with high rates were Hungary at 22.6 and Japan at 20.3, both using numbers from 2003, the latest available. The U.S. suicide rate was 10.2 per 100,000 in 2002, the agency said.

The National Police Agency recorded 14,011 suicides in South Korea in 2005. Suicide is the leading cause of death for South Koreans in their 20s and 30s, and the No. 4 cause overall.

Although there are varying causes for suicide, the common denominator is "stress and pressure," Lee said, noting an unfortunate side-effect of the country's swift economic develop- ment.

"Rapid change is the biggest problem in all areas -- the economy and family system," he said. "At the same time, the support system is getting weaker."

South Korea is regularly praised for building a robust high-tech economy from the ashes of the Korean War.

But growth has brought increased pressure. Families spend heavily to provide their children tutors to get ahead in school, competition for jobs is fierce and housing prices have soared.

Suicides also are rising among people in their 60s who don't want to burden their families.

Dr. Ahn Myoung-ock, a member of parliament, has sponsored a series of bills calling for a coordinated government effort to combat suicide. The proposals include beefing up prevention and counseling and allowing confidential use of satellite positioning data from cellphones to locate people who are trying to kill themselves.

"I hope since we have had that kind of compressed rapidity of economic development ... that we have the ability to solve this rapidly as well," she said.

Even the rich and famous are affected.

The latest high-profile casualty came in January, when pop singer Yuni was found hanged in her apartment in the city of Inchon. Relatives said she was gripped by depression from the pressure associated with the release of her third album.

In 2005, Lee Yoon-hyung, daughter of the chairman of South Korea's biggest company, Samsung Group, killed herself at age 26 in New York.

Actress Lee Eun-joo was found last February hanging from a necktie in her apartment.

Korean media have reported about group suicides, in which people who want to kill themselves find others through the Internet and meet in motels or parks and drink poison.

Lee praised recent agreements from Internet search engines to link the keyword "suicide" to centers that provide counseling, instead of sending people to sites that would help them devise ways to kill themselves.

It is easy to find people with suicidal thoughts on the forums of leading South Korean websites. A recent posting purportedly came from a sixth-grader complaining about family troubles and a lack of friends.

"Most of all, I don't know why I should exist. I don't think I'm worth anything," the unnamed writer said. "Nobody will care if I die

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