**WARNING – This post discusses suicide and mental health. Please be aware of potentially upsetting content.**
“So, what are your plans for the future Connie?”
These days I seem to give a very long answer to such a short question. While what I’m sure people expect to hear is ‘oh I’m doing this and that,’ or ‘I’m going on holiday in a few months so I need to save up‘ or even ‘nothing much, just finishing my studies‘, what I end up saying is “Well I finish my masters in September, so I’m working on that, and then I’m getting a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) qualification before the end of 2018, because I’m planning on moving to Seoul in 2019. Oh so, I’m also learning Korean and saving up all my money for the move. What about you?”
After this, understandably, I’m always asked “… why?”
To this, I’m afraid, is an even longer answer.
I can’t really say I’ve always wanted to live and work in South Korea, because that wouldn’t be true. In fact, I never really thought about living and working outside of the UK at all until last summer. I have, however, always wanted to visit Asia, specifically China, Japan and the Korean peninsula because I find the history and cultures in each of these places fascinating. Members of my family have lived and worked and travelled throughout South Asia, and I have never been. But hearing about these places, watching documentaries about the various art forms, trying as much traditional food as possible, studying their cultures and learning about their individual (and collective) histories was enjoyable for me. I loved learning and immersing myself in something entirely different. When I was in high school I had my first taste of South Korean culture, thanks to the marvel that is K-pop. I loved watching the music videos from Girls Generation, Super Junior and SHINee with my friends during breaks and trying to learn the dance moves – often failing miserably in my case. It wasn’t much, and it wasn’t much of an insight into the real Korea, but it was a seed that grew and grew into what is now a wider appreciation of South Korea, its arts, culture, history and lifestyle as a whole.
While this gives a bit of context as to why I am interested in South Korea, it doesn’t explain why I am planning to move there. That, interestingly, started from my love of food and watching cooking shows. Anyone who has lived with me will know that my go-to guilty pleasure for daytime TV is watching food network and learning new, and often decadent, recipes. During the summer of 2017, my favourite show was called “Korean food made simple” and was hosted by Korean American professional chef, writer and television personality Judy Joo. I loved it. I was obsessed. Having eaten Chinese food and Japanese food frequently, and having attempted to cook Chinese and Japanese cuisine at home, I was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t tried ever even heard of most of the food she mentioned. I had seen Korean restaurants but had never tried the food. But there it was, on my TV, with recipes and ingredients and information that was all new to me. Watching this show gave me a brief glimpse into everyday life in Korea, as well as snippets of history, culture and the Korean language – which sounded beautiful. I wanted to learn more, and so I did what any millennial would do. I looked on YouTube for videos about South Korea.
And boy oh boy, did I fall down a rabbit hole. I found so many videos. Music videos that I hadn’t seen in years, new groups and bands and artists that I adored, Korean dramas and movies which I became unexpectedly invested in, YouTubers who made videos about living in Korea like Megan Bowen, My Korean Husband and Eat Your Kimchi. I was finding out about Korean education system, Korean fashion, jokes, superstitions, drinking games, what it was like to live, eat, shop and work in Korea. It was so interesting.
And then, I watched this one video by Eat Your Kimchi. It was part of their TL; DR Wednesdays video series, and it was called Suicide in South Korea. I hadn’t seen many videos on such a serious topic, and as I have an interest in topics surrounding mental health I was curious. Watching this video is what started the process of me deciding to move abroad. The first line of this video was “For the 11th year in a row now, Korea’s number 1 in suicides for the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) according to a 2015 report.” That in itself was a very shocking statistic, but as the video continued I could feel myself becoming more and more heart-broken by what I heard. At the release of this video suicide was , and still is, the number one cause of death in children, teenagers and young people in South Korea. The video also shared how the pressures of schools and tests is so severe that access to school rooftops must be locked during exam season because student have been known to leave exams, go to the roof and jump off.
I struggle with depression and anxiety, I was diagnosed with both when I was 18, and I have been hospitalised after I had attempted to take my own life, so I know first-hand what it can be like to reach that level of desperation and depression, but this was unbelievable. I couldn’t comprehend that these statistics could be correct, or that the stories that I had heard were realistic. School had been no picnic for me either, but even from primary school we had been encouraged to talk about and share our feelings with someone, and I was always told that there was someone to talk to. I’d also lost friends to suicide and knew of many other people who struggled with poor mental health, but never in such a severe scenario. So, I did some research of my own and, honestly, I was shocked by what I found.
South Korea still has the highest suicide rate in the world, with an average of 40 people committing suicide every day. About 1 in 4 Koreans experience a mental health disorder at least once in their life, and only 1 in 10 pursue professional help. As mentioned in the video, suicide is the No.1 cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 30. For people in their 40s, suicide is the second most common cause of death, after cancer, but the difference is very small and among the older generations, the numbers are even more worrying, with the elderly committing suicide to avoid being seen as a burden and to escape their own loneliness.
After the Korean war, South Korea achieved considerable economic transformation in a relatively short period of time. However social change in the country did not keep pace with economic change which has lead to massive social implications. From what I have read and heard from friends, Korean society produces a huge amount of expectancy to achieve and ‘be successful’ and is the daily driving force for most Koreans. From childhood, one is expected to aim to be the best. Get the best grades, go to the best school, get the best jobs. This seeps into the rest of their lives beyond school, with social pressures and demands leaving over 90 percent of 7,000 people surveyed by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said that they were under some form of stress, while a quarter said that they were under high stress. This strain can lead to self-destructiveness and reliance on vices with many Korean workers saying how alcohol allows them to open up to co-workers and bosses as well as students explaining how heavy drinking is their way to de-stress from South Korea’s hyper-competitive society (South Koreans were the world’s biggest consumers of hard liquor as of 2014, drinking 11.2 shots per week on average).
I feel very strongly that I can and should use my experiences, my skills and my interests to help other people. Specifically, to help people who struggle with mental health issues and to encourage discussions about mental health and how you can live with it, as well as helping people support those with mental health issues. I’ve done this even before I was diagnosed myself and, after I took time to help myself, I did so after I ended up hitting rock bottom. But there is no way I would be where I am now had I not had help from friends, family, medical experts, councillors, co-workers and significant role-models in my life. So, when I heard of the severity of the needs of Korean people, my instinct kicked in and I thought ‘what can I do to help?’
I know that I’m not going to be able to help everyone, and I know that there are people that need help in the UK. I’m also so aware that South Korea will be a huge culture shock and that before I can contribute in any way I need to learn as much as I can about life in Korea and adapt to the lifestyle there. But that many people shouldn’t feel that they have no option other than to end their own life. It’s heart-breaking, and it is wrong. South Korea has a unique culture and style of life, there is a huge family focus and a sense of loyalty and respect that I feel could do with being replicated in many other places. But where I can help with social growth, to support as many people as possible, I want to help. I also have the good fortune to be comfortable talking about mental health, I can empathise with many people with how they are feeling, and the skills and abilities I have could work towards positive changes. Let alone the fact that not only am I someone who could help, but I actively want to. I want to go to South Korea, so I’m going to work my butt off to get there and get started.
UK mental health support hotlines
US mental health support hotlines
ROK mental health support hotlines
List of international mental health support hotlines
follow me on Instagram and Twitter @Connienkiga
Crude Suicide Rate by Country 2017 – http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/suicide-rate-by-country/
Avoiding psychiatric treatment linked to Korea’s high suicide rate – By KH디지털2 – Jan 27, 2016 http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20160127001146
Korea neglecting mental health issues: experts – By Anita Mckay – Jul 10, 2017 http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170710000535
‘In Korea, there is no mental health’: Barriers to treatment – Chris Juergens – June 29, 2017 http://www.intheforefront.org/in-korea-there-is-no-mental-health-barriers-to-treatment/
Funerals for the living in bid to tackle South Korea’s high suicide rate – Justin McCurry 15 Dec 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/15/south-korea-high-suicide-rate-funerals-for-the-living
Student Suicides in South Korea – Kristine – 2011. 06.06 http://www.voicesofyouth.org/fr/posts/student-suicides-in-south-korea
Why Koreans commit suicide – Ranjit Kumar Dhawan, 2015-12-20 http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2016/03/162_193603.html
South Korea’s Struggle With Suicide – Young-Ha Kim APRIL 2, 2014 https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/03/opinion/south-koreas-struggle-with-suicide.html