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Suicide in South Korea - statistics & facts

South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with around 13 thousand people taking their own lives in 2020. In contrast to the global downward trend, South Korea’s suicide rate has nearly doubled over the past two decades. With 25.7 deaths per 100,000 population, suicide was the fifth leading cause of death in 2020, far exceeding deaths from traffic accidents. While elderly men had the highest suicide rate, the rise in suicides among adolescents and youth is another worrisome development. Since 2011, suicide has been the leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24 years.

Why does South Korea have such a high suicide rate?

Suicide in South Korea is increasingly seen not only as an individual health problem, but also as a general social problem that has resulted in part from the country's rapid economic growth. Inequality, relative poverty, and youth unemployment are some of the serious issues that have become increasingly evident over the last several years. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, are particularly affected. The relative poverty rate of the elderly, the share of people living with less than half the median disposable income, stood at around 45 percent in 2019, the highest in the OECD. A survey showed that most of the older adults considered suicide due to health problems and financial difficulties.

Social pressure and inequality in this highly competitive and success-oriented society are other important risk factors for the soaring rate of suicides among teens and young adults. A 2020 survey found that nearly one out of three middle and high school students in South Korea have thought of taking their own lives, mainly due to academic stress. In another survey, more than 65 percent of young Seoul residents disagreed with the statement that South Korea is a country where young people can live reasonably well. Wealth and income inequality were cited as the main reasons for dissatisfaction with society. The fact that suicidal ideation was more common among young people with low incomes is not surprising.

Suicide prevention

Since the South Korean government introduced its first suicide prevention program in 2004, various measures have been taken to counteract the exceptionally high suicide rate, unfortunately without big success. Although the annual budget for suicide prevention has been steadily increased, it remains very small by international standards and compared to other prevention programs. The lack of professional staff at suicide prevention centers and the national hotline is a particularly acute problem that has recently led more and more people to call for stronger government action and prioritization of the problem.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, it is essential to seek help. If you live in the United States, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Korea Suicide Prevention Center can be reached at 1393.

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