South Korea’s suicide rate fell for years. Women are bringing it on again
To read more about The Economist’s data journalism visit our Graphic Details page.
BUT FOR a friend alerted the police, the two teenage girls might have gone through. Instead, they climbed back over the railings of a bridge in Seoul, the South Korean capital, completing what would have been a live suicide attempt on May 5. A few weeks earlier, another young woman from Seoul killed herself on Instagram. All three were members of Depression Gallery, an online community for people with mental health problems.
Events like this are part of a worrying trend. South Korea has had an unusually high suicide rate for a member of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries. Before 2018, only in Lithuania was the problem more severe. But although the numbers of both countries had been decreasing for ten years, from 2018 South Korea started to climb again, overtaking Lithuania to be the highest in the world. OECD. Although men continued to kill themselves more often than women, their numbers did not increase. The increase reflects higher suicide rates among women, especially young ones.
Suicide rates for women under the age of 40 have been rising in other countries as well. The Economist compiled data from 18 countries willing to share their data (see our interactive chart above). We found that between 2018 and 2020, suicide rates across 17 countries, not including South Korea, rose slightly from an average of 4.6 to 4.7 per 100,000 people. But in South Korea it rose from 13.2 to 16.
It is not clear why the increase occurred. One reason may be the growing expectations against women. Despite excellence in South Korea’s highly competitive education system, they are discriminated against in the office and expected to be raising children rather than working. At home they are burdened with most of the domestic labor and child rearing. But as single-earner families become rarer, they are increasingly expected to bring home the bacon too. It doesn’t help that many are subject to sexual beauty standards, misogyny, sexual abuse and a culture that embraces abhorrent practices, such as spycam porn. The prominence of South Korea’s #MeToo movement, which began shortly before the uprising, has raised awareness of many of these problems—but not fixed them. And young women are also more likely to be in precarious work, meaning they suffered disproportionately when the pandemic hit.
In April the South Korean government announced the fifth “Suicide Prevention Master Plan”. Mental health checks will now be available every two years, rather than every decade. In addition, the plan recommends different approaches for young and old. (Suicide rates are highest among people over 70 in Korea.) For women in their 20s and 30s who live alone, South Korea provides more counseling and treatment , sometimes including family members. Offering women help to manage difficult situations is a good start. But a real plan would have to address the root causes of the misery as well.■