Pictured above is a yellow ribbon, an emblem for suicide awareness and prevention in America. (Photo via Evansville PTA)
by DR. ESTHER OH
A few weeks ago, my friend called to cancel our lunch date. She said her uncle had passed away, and she had to help the family with funeral preparations. A week later, we met up, and she quietly disclosed that her uncle had died by hanging himself in his house, while his wife was away at church. She said the family knew that he was depressed, but didn’t realize how severe it was. She admitted they told other people that he died of a heart attack because they were too ashamed to say that he committed suicide. My friend sadly noted, “We wonder if he would still be alive today if he got the help he needed.”
Last year, I wrote an article titled “Opening the Dialogue on Suicide.” Over the past few months, the theme of suicide has popped up more than once in my personal life, as well as made headlines in the media (most recently with Robin Williams’ death), and I felt this topic deserved another look. It is well known that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world.
Some of the high-profile ones include the suicides of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who jumped to his death from a mountain, the famous Korean actress Choi Jin-shil, who hanged herself, and Kang Min-gyu, the high school vice principal who survived the ferry sinking only to take his own life. I read that the suicide rates in South Korea increased after each of these events. I know that discussing suicide can be a sensitive topic, but we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that suicide will go away on its own.
As a psychiatrist, hearing such stories, especially the ones close to home, breaks my heart. It makes me sad to think that suicide is considered a solution for people going through tough times. Sometimes, it makes me question my professional skills and the positive impact I have on society. Other times, I wonder how one’s cultural mindset and upbringing influence our beliefs about suicide. After the discussion with my friend, I realized how much the word “shame” is linked to the experience of suicide in our community. As with my friend’s family, Koreans tend to hide the truth out of fear this will negatively affect the family’s reputation, that others will think there is something wrong with them.
But the fact is that suicide is more common than we realize, and if you haven’t personally experienced someone close to you attempting or committing suicide, you probably have a friend or co-worker who has. It is important for us to strategize ways to increase suicide awareness in our community and welcome open discussions about it. If not, we continue to perpetuate the stigma behind mental health issues and treatment.
I ran across an article published this year in the International Journal of Mental Health System, which revealed that many Korean college students believe that suicide is permissible and predictable. In their research, co-authors Kristen Kim and Jong-Ik Park found that these students perceive that suicide is within a person’s rights and that people often communicate their suicidal intentions to others before killing themselves.
It was shocking to hear that people accept suicide as a way of “taking responsibility” or “one’s right.” This article also got me wondering how often people hear about a person’s suicidal plan, but don’t take it seriously or ignore it. Some people fear that discussions about suicide will plant ideas in people’s minds or give them the false impression that suicide is tolerated. Contrary to beliefs, the purpose of suicide awareness and prevention is to inform people that suicide happens, that there is help and other options, and that they are not alone.
By talking openly about the issue, instead of hiding it, I hope we, as a community, make the effort to learn about suicide and work toward its prevention—by learning the warning signs, being informed about the resources out there, and taking the initiative to talk to people who are in trouble and get them the help they need. Suicide is not the only solution or the way out of shame, despair or conflict. There are effective treatment options, such as therapy and medications to help individuals work through the negative feelings that drive them to suicidal thoughts. Making that first step to reach out can be the hardest part of treatment.
One of the main reasons I started this column is to work toward normalizing and promoting the discussion of mental health issues, as well as the use of mental health services. My hope is that members of our community see that reaching out for help is a sign of personal strength and courage, rather than weakness or a deficiency. Just as we seek treatment for cancer or diabetes, we should tend to our mental health needs, as well. And if we see a relative or friend in trouble, it could go a long way just to talk to him or her and offer your support. You could quite literally save a life.
For more information on suicide, visit:
If there is a life-threatening emergency, make sure to call 911 or proceed to the nearest emergency room.
Dr. Esther Oh, a psychiatrist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, writes a regular mental health column for KoreAm. If you have questions, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence will be strictly confidential and only accessed by Dr. Oh. Opinions expressed here represent those solely of the author.
This article was published in the August/September 2014 issue of KoreAm, under the title, “Let’s Talk About Suicide.” Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/Sept. issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).