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(EDITORIAL from Korea Herald on Oct. 4)

All Headlines 07:15 October 04, 2019

Suicide prevention
: Alarm bells should ring louder on rebound in suicide rate

In yet more gloomy news for Korea, already troubled by an economic slump and social division, recent government data showed that the suicide rate rose again last year, ending five years of improvement.

The rate, defined as the number of suicides per 100,000 people in a year, was up 9.5 percent from a year earlier to 26.6 in 2018. The number of people who died by suicide last year reached 13,670, a 9.7 percent increase from 2017. The figures had been declining since 2013, when the suicide rate stood at 28.5 and the number of suicides amounted to 14,427.

Korea's suicide rate is more than double the average of the 36 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which remained at 11.5 in 2017. The country had recorded the highest rate among OECD members since 2003 until being overtaken by Lithuania last year. It is expected to retake the top spot in the list to be announced later this year.

The surge in the rate is certainly embarrassing for President Moon Jae-in's administration, which put suicide prevention on its key policy agenda adopted when it assumed office in 2017. Last year, it set up a goal to lower the rate to 17 by 2022.

Government officials seem to be trying to deflect pubic attention from the latest suicide statistics and downplay their socio-economic implications. They attribute the upward trend in the suicide rate partly to what is known as the Werther effect of emulating the suicide of a celebrity. This can be seen as rebuking suicide as little more than an emotional, childish choice.

Taking this evasive stance makes it difficult to look squarely into the inconvenient and saddening reality and work out effective measures to help prevent depressed and frustrated people from going to the extreme of taking their lives.

According to data from Statistics Korea, the suicide rate rose in all age groups last year except for those in their 80s. The rise was steepest among teens at 22.1 percent, followed by people in their 40s at 13.1 percent and 30s at 12.2 percent.

Suicide was the No. 1 cause of death for people aged between 10 and 39 in the country in 2018. It was the second leading cause of death for people in their 40s and 50s.

It may be difficult to single out a specific reason for the rise in the suicide rate, as there are usually complex factors behind each case. The increase in the suicide rate among teens may be attributed partly to the Werther effect. But it may well reflect the growing stress teenage students feel at school and home. In a 2018 survey of about 60,000 middle and high school students around the country, 3.1 percent of respondents said they had attempted to take their lives over the past year.

More generally, worsening economic conditions seem to be the main reason for the increasing number of suicides among adults. According to a survey of 1,500 people aged between 19 and 75, economic problems were cited by 34.9 percent of respondents who considered suicide last year, up from 28.5 percent in 2013.

Economic difficulties can explain the particularly high suicide rate among Koreans aged 65 and older. A report from the Ministry of Health and Welfare put the suicide rate in the age group at 58.6 in 2015, more than triple the OECD average of 18.8. According to OECD data, the proportion of elderly Koreans who earned less than 50 percent of the median income stood at 48.8 percent in 2014, compared to an average 12.1 percent for member nations of the organization.

What is concerning is that the country will likely see its suicide rate continue to rise in the coming years, as the deepening economic slump makes life harder for lower-income people. It is necessary to strengthen the social safety net for people in need, particularly the growing aged population living under the poverty line. But a decrease in tax revenue amid prolonged economic downturn will limit the funding for expanded welfare programs.

In this sense, reinvigorating corporate activity so that companies can earn greater profits and hire more workers, resulting in a rise in tax revenue, is needed to lower the suicide rate.

In more technical terms, an integrated system should be set up with professional staff to make it easier to find people more vulnerable to suicide at medical and welfare facilities and provide them with proper counseling.

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