People & Power

South Korea: Suicide Nation

People & Power investigates South Korea’s disturbing rise in suicides, particularly among the elderly.

Loneliness, poverty, chronic illness, losing one’s job, the death of a loved one or the breakdown of a marriage – there are many reasons why people fall prey to heartbreak and despair, but most of us, thankfully, will find a route out of that unhappiness or at least develop ways of dealing with it.

Even for those who can not, whose sadness turns into the ‘black dog’ of overwhelming clinical depression, the right help can still make a crucial difference to being able to cope – be it medical care, the understanding of therapists or the love and support of family and friends. Eventually some sort of recovery takes place, some balance and perspective is restored.

Yet for some the experience of depression can be so profound that none of this works, that all remedies and assistance seem valueless and there appears to be only one way out – to end it all and takes one’s own life. Such a step is, of course, a mark of absolute and final desperation, a tragic, wasteful act that can often be cruelly devastating for the people left behind. But people still do it, many thousands around the world every year; lost souls whose mental health has been damaged and stretched beyond breaking point.

Curiously though, some societies and cultures seem more prone to suicide than others. Take South Korea, for example, where suicide has become the fourth most common cause of death, with up to 40 of its citizens taking their own lives every day. For the last eight years it has had the highest suicide rates in the industrialised world (and the second highest in the whole world behind Guyana) and it is now, astonishingly the number one cause of death for its citizens between the ages of 10 and 30.

Delve a little deeper into these statistics (gathered as the nation has become more concerned about the phenomenon) and you will find that men commit suicide twice as often as women; that children and young adults will cite the stress of living in a hyper-competitive society or pressure over exam results and college entrance as the main reason for contemplating suicide; that middle-aged South Koreans most often turn to it through concern over personal economic problems; and that the elderly will kill themselves (or consider doing so) because of isolation as a result of the breakdown of the traditional family unit.

Each of these facts and figures, so easy to write out, conceals a sad personal story, a life that has somehow lost its purpose and meaning or an unbearable anguish that has been crying out for relief. And they still do not explain why South Koreans are more susceptible to suicide than, let’s say, the people of Namibia or Iceland.

This film from Veronique Mauduy sets out to investigate that question and to find out what South Korea is doing to bring its most vulnerable people back from the edge.