This post is intended to highlight the negative impact suffered by the South Korean society in what seems to be a “lateral damage” (suicides) of the sustained economic growth of the country for the last 20 years. South Korea has achieved a strong economic growth based on a highly competitive education model and a strong investment in R&D for a rapid technological development. Some of todays most well known multinationals are South Korean: e.g. Samsung, LG, Hyundai Kia or Daewoo.

One of the milestones achieved by the rapid growth experienced by South Korea over the past 20 years has been demonstrated by reducing the gap between their per-capita national income and that of countries like United  States: in particular, this gap decreased to achieve only 36% difference in 2010, when it  was around 62% in 1991.

To analyze the national welfare and life chances of its population we can echo Korea’s ranking in the human development index (HDI), an indicator calculated based on three basic dimensions of human development: Health, Education and Income. In the case of South Korea, we find that between 1980 and 2012, the HDI rose by 1.6% annually, from 0.640 in 1980 to 0.909 in 2012, ranking No.12 among the 187 countries with comparable data available. The HDI of the OECD as a region increased over the same period of 0.756 to 0.888, placing South Korea above OECD average.

However, this economic growth has been accompanied by an increase in the unequal and growing distribution of wealth in the country year over year, reaching in 2009 the OECD average. Korea’s relative poverty line, i.e. the percentage of the population living on less than half the average wage grew by 15% in 2008, ranking seventh out of OECD countries.

However they are leading global trends in suicides

The above ratios hide one of the great social problems that South Korea is facing today, the significant increase in the number of suicides among its population. Globally suicides have raised among countries that very quickly reached a high HDI (China, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea) when compared with those that had a more gradual increase of the same index (Australia, New Zealand and Singapore). Since 2010, South Korea is the OECD country with the highest number of suicides.

The suicide rate in South Korea, in 1997, showed that only 13.1 of every 100,000 Koreans committed suicide. Since then, and in parallel with the evolution of the country’s economic growth, the number has continued to increase. In 2010, more than 42 people a day committed suicide, which in annual terms, represented more than 15,000 people. Nowadays, South Korea is the country with the highest suicide rates among the group of OECD countries, reaching in 2010 the value of 33.5 suicides per 100,000 thousand people, a 155% increase since 1997.

Based on the data of the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention, in 1997 suicide occupied the tenth position among the leading causes of death in the country, rising to a seventh position in 1998 and becoming the third cause in the year 2010. According to this data, in South Korea, more people die from suicide than from diabetes, pneumonia, car accidents or hypertension. In the same vein, recent reports published in March 2013 by the Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation (IHME), the source of the most current and reliable information to compare health globally, found that in South Korea, suicides are the second source of years of life lost (YPPL) just behind cerebrovascular diseases (while in Spain, years of life lost due to suicide, occupy the position #13, in the UK #8, while in Finland/Sweden rank #4, though).

How do institutions address this issue?

There have been numerous initiatives undertaken by governmental and non-profit organizations in the country with the aim of combating suicide. Among these:

– Removing spaces in subway stations that allow falling upon moving wagons, a particularly common way of suicide in the country. Since 2004, the government began installing platforms equipped with safety doors at major subway stations. This fact is illustrated in this video of Seoul subway.

– The dissemination of educational programs about suicide and depression both online and on television or even in the underground.

– The institutionalization of the day of detection of depression and the world suicide prevention day on September 10th.

– More generally, recommending solutions focused on individual behavioural change: more active social participation, practicing sports or therapeutic avenue as ways of preventing depression, as suggested by the following news:

In essence, we can realize that current approaches to address this type of social disorders are in line with what it’s usually refered as tertiary prevention, suggesting individualized solutions to face what seems to be a structural problem. Are we sure that this is the best way of preventing? Is it not possible to develop more structural social policies?

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