Mental Health Taboos Fuel Korean American Suicides
by Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee of New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO — Jean Yoo’s friends and co-workers all said nothing seemed to be amiss with the 36-year-old media personality, well known among Los Angeles’ Korean community as the anchor for Prime News. Which explains why so many were shocked by word of her suicide last month, one of a recent number to strike the city’s sizable Korean community.
Korean media reports show that last month there were four suicides and another murder-suicide involving either Koreans or Korean Americans in the greater Los Angeles area. Nationwide, there were some 21 Korean-related suicides this year, according to a report in the Korean-language Sunday Journal in Los Angeles.
Investigators say they are still looking into the possible motive behind Yoo’s death, which was followed days later by that of a marketing director with Radio Korea, identified by his surname, Choi.
Choi’s body was found in the office lavatory, where he hanged himself after leaving a note apologizing for his decision. No explanation was offered, however, though co-workers told local Korean media that the 56-year-old had struggled with bouts of depression.
According to Christine Kim, who runs counseling services at the Korean American Family Service Center in Los Angeles, despite the risks, “issues of mental health or depression are rarely discussed” within the community.
“Koreans tend to be very concerned with physical health,” explained Kim, “though the topic of mental health often remains taboo.”
Accurate data on rates of depression and other mental health-related ailments among first and second generation Korean Americans are difficult to ascertain. Part of the problem is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is responsible for collecting such information, only does so for Asian Americans as a whole, without parsing out data on specific ethnicities.
South Korea, however, has consistently ranked at or near the top among developed nations in terms of annual suicides, based on reports from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2009, the country topped the 30-nation list with 28 suicides per 100,000 people, compared to 17 for the United States.
A government report from 2010 also noted that suicide was the leading cause of death among South Koreans under the age of 40, though a number of older Koreans — including one former president and scores of disgraced business execs — have also taken their own lives in recent years.
The factors behind such numbers may or may not bear a direct connection to Koreans in this country, though cultural similarities abound, particularly the emphasis on success. For immigrant families, such pressure becomes even more acute and is captured in the oft-heard expression, “Return home clothed in gold.”
“There is less tolerance [among Asian immigrants] for things that are not higher achieving,” said Dr. Russell Lim, who teaches health science at the University of California, Davis and is a staff psychiatrist at the nearby Adult Psychiatric Support Services Clinic. “These attitudes,” he added, “often get passed on to the second generation.”
Lim, who has researched culturally appropriate treatments for mental illness among Asian Americans, noted that suicide ranks among the top 10 leading causes of death for the group, while Asian women between the ages of 15 and 24 account for more suicides than all women in the country, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
But, Lim acknowledged, “Asian Americans just don’t want to see a psychiatrist.”
Those that do, often come to that point “well after they’ve reached a crisis stage,” said Kim with the Family Services Center, making treatment all the more difficult and time consuming.
Kim noted, however, that there has been a 10-15 percent increase in the number of Koreans coming to the center for treatment compared to last year, and speculates the rise may have something to do with the dreary economic climate.
Reports have shown that the financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 has struck minority communities with particular force. For many Korean Americans, a high percentage of whom are small business owners, times have indeed become challenging.
Jin Lee is a crisis line shift supervisor with the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles. She said that while specific numbers for Koreans aren’t available, the center did install a tracking system to account for the number of calls coming in related to financial distress, currently a disturbing 16 percent.
She also noted the center received a $6.5 million grant in September from the state-run California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA), part of which will go toward hiring more Korean-speaking line operators and to enhance outreach programs to the community.
“We get invited to churches, schools and public events,” said Lee, adding that in such venues participants are more willing to admit there is a problem. But, she said, in some cases outreach workers have to tailor their language.
“Suicide as a word can be harsh for some people,” explained Lee, and can “close the door” to further dialogue.
As for Jean Yoo, it remains unclear what motivated the successful and talented news anchor to take her own life. Calls to Prime News went unanswered, though comments on Facebook reflect the dismay felt by her audience.
“I remember watching her on t.v. and thinking, she’s young, she’s pretty, she’s smart, wow, she must have everything going for her…and this news? really surprised….,” wrote Kathy Park.
Another commenter by the name of Joy Louise took to task members of the community for ignoring the warning signs of friends and neighbors who may be in distress. “If you and I don’t step up, whether or not we have a license or a title, who is going to do it?”
Such signs were clearly visible in the years and months leading up to the murder-suicide of 55-year-old Ok-hwa Yang, an ethnic Korean from China who last month was shot in the head by her husband, Won-dal Jin.
A report in the Korea Times quoted Jin’s older brother as saying the couple had married five years ago, but problems quickly arose after the husband, who came to the country in 1982, lost his job as an auto mechanic due to a diabetes-related disability.
In a note posted to a popular Korean-language blog site shortly before his death, Jin complained about having lost all his possessions, including a home, because of his health. He also described his recent divorce.
“She asked me to leave the apartment. I still suffer from the disease. But she asked me to sign the divorce papers, so I did.” Five days later, Jin shot and killed his former wife when she returned to their Los Angeles apartment to collect her clothing. He then turned the gun on himself.
This article was originally published by New America Media. Reprinted with permission.