October 08, 2019 13:41
An Education Ministry official made the following comment after the Chosun Ilbo recently published an article about the 709 schoolkids who attempted suicide last year, while 144 ended up actually taking their own lives: "I think youngsters' suicide statistics should not reported in the news media because depressed children may be influenced by them."
"Children tend to copy others, so news reports about celebrities and others committing suicide could provoke them to make drastic decisions," he added, blaming the messenger and a handful of copycats.
When Statistics Korea unveiled last year's suicide data on Sept. 24, a staffer at the Ministry of Health and Welfare said much the same. Seeing that 103,670 suicides was extrapolated as equaling a suicide rate of 26.6 people per 100,000, up 10 percent compared to the previous year, the staffer attributed the phenomenon to the "Werther Effect" or copycat suicides after celebrities took their own lives. Yet the suicide rate, which gradually declined from 28.5 per 100,000 people in 2013, suddenly shot up five years later, propelling Korea back to the top spot among OECD member countries, whereas celebrity suicides happen roughly at a rate of a couple a year. Government officials are making up absurd excuses.
Believe it or not, the Moon Jae-in administration selected suicide prevention as one of its top 100 policy objectives. Last year, it came up with an initiative to prevent suicide and even set a goal of reducing the number to 17 per 100,000 people by 2022. Instead, the exact opposite has happened. The health ministry said in 2018 that 3.1 percent of 60,040 middle and high schoolers it studied attempted to kill themselves. That translates into more than 80,000.
A society cannot be considered healthy if so many of its constituents take their own lives. But the government refuses to look this problem straight in the face. The "Werther Effect" does exist, and suicide rates generally rise slightly after a widely publicized suicide. But to blame all of it on victims' immaturity is an outrage. All the government has therefore done is to try and delete some YouTube and social media content advocating suicide, a stopgap measure at best.
With gloomier statistics on suicides among youngsters emerging, the Education Ministry belatedly opened a 24-hour social-media counseling service in March. Around 200 youngsters apparently reach out to the service every day for help, or 20,000 every 100 days. The overwhelming response has shocked operators. Such a terrible problem cannot be resolved by sweeping it under the carpet. The government needs to face the facts, admit that the problem exists, and come up with adequate measures to prevent the next child or young person from taking their own lives.
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