The suicide rate in Songbuk-gu in northern Seoul fell from 30.1 per 100,000 people in 2010 to 22.1 in 2012 after it became the first district in Korea to set up a suicide prevention center for senior citizens in 2010.
District officials identified 400 elderly people as being at high risk of suicide and assigned 300 volunteers to give them counseling and tend to their needs. The volunteers met them around twice a month and called them regularly to check on their needs, giving them the emotional attention and support they craved.
Jinan County in North Jeolla Province had the dubious distinction of having the highest suicide rate in 2011 with 75.5 out of 100,000 people taking their own lives.
Shocked county officials sought out 63 of the most vulnerable and provided them with monthly counselling. As a result, the suicide rate dropped to 21.8 per 100,000 in 2012. More and more elderly people there decided against taking their own life because they felt that people were out there willing to take care of them.
Korean society at large, however, has long written off suicide as a personal matter and turned its back on the most vulnerable. As a result, 14,160 people committed suicide here in 2012, or 29.1 per 100,000, which was three times the number of people who died in traffic accidents that year. Korea maintains the highest suicide rate in the OECD. Japan came second with 20.9 per 100,000. Worse, the suicide rate is rising fast, marking a more than threefold increase from just 8.3 per 100,000 in 1992.
There are many reasons for the surge in the suicides. The gap between the rich and poor keeps widening, while the social safety net once provided by family and neighbors is fraying. More and more elderly people spend their twilight years in ailing health. These structural reasons must be dealt with on a long-term basis by strengthening public welfare. But in the short term, emergency help for desperate people is also needed.
The lesson from Songbuk-gu and Jinan County is to seek out the most vulnerable and offer a helping hand. In the U.S., people who appear suicidal are put on 72-hour monitoring in hospital under the care of social workers and physicians.
Finland saw its suicide rate rise to 30.3 per 100,000 in 1986, the highest in Europe, and implemented a nationwide suicide prevention program where anyone could go to hospital for psychological tests that can discover suicidal tendencies. As a result, Finland's suicide rate fell to 17.3 per 100,000 in 2012.Korea too must act to stem the suicide epidemic. Possible measures include counselling, banning the sale of potent herbicides often used for suicide, shutting down suicide-related websites, keeping people away from the rooftops of high-rise buildings and setting up nets on the sides of bridges to prevent them from jumping to their death. This should be coordinated by a dedicated agency under the prime minister. Suicide is often the result of psychological problems, but government measures can help potential victims. The country should be ashamed of virtually ignoring this epidemic.