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Suicide is on the rise among South Korean women

AS OF DECEMBER 10th, 564 South Koreans had died of covid-19. Roughly twice that number died by suicide every month between January and September, the latest month for which data are available. Half as many again made the attempt and were saved by the emergency services.

High as these numbers are, they are mercifully much lower than a decade ago, when the suicide rate began to decline sharply. Unfortunately, this happy trend has recently gone into reverse (see chart). The reversal is largely driven by women in their teens, 20s and 30s. Between 2018 and 2019 the number of women in their 20s dying by suicide rose by a quarter as the number of men of the same age killing themselves stayed more or less constant. Data from the first three-quarters of 2020 suggest the suicide rate among young women is rising still more. What is going on?

In most rich and middle-income countries suicide rates have been low and declining in recent years. Though South Korea had begun to follow that trend, its people are more likely to kill themselves than those of any other OECD country except Lithuania. In 2019 there were 27 deaths from suicide for every 100,000 people, almost four times the number in Britain and nearly twice as many as in America. In other respects, however, South Korea follows global patterns: men and the elderly tend to be at higher risk of suicide than women and the young—making the increase in suicide among younger women all the more puzzling.

Sociologists tend to attribute the high overall rate to social and economic upheaval. They argue that rapid economic development combined with a clash between traditional social expectations and the individualism of modern life have plunged the country into the sort of confusion that Emile Durkheim, a 19th-century sociologist, called “anomie”, in which conflicting social signals drive people to despair. That sort of tension may be particularly acute for young women in contemporary South Korea, says Timothy Kang of the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. Having been brought up in the same competitive academic environment as their male peers, they then encounter discrimination in the workplace, sexist standards of beauty and pressure to marry and have children.

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South Korean feminists argue that the pressure on women has been compounded in recent years by the use of the internet to propagate misogynistic views and to disseminate illicitly obtained images of women, often from spycams hidden in toilets and changing rooms. The country’s vocal women’s movement has faced an intemperate backlash from men who object to its demands. “The relentlessness of the attacks is a big problem for women,” says Shin Min-joo, an activist who has received plenty of online vitriol herself. The suicides in 2019 of two female celebrities following months of online trolling may have added to the trauma, she suggests.

Economic precariousness is another factor. Sluggish economic growth over the past few years has been harder on young women, who are more likely to be employed in the service sector and on short-term contracts. The pandemic has probably exacerbated these problems. The drop in the share of women in work this autumn compared with the year before has been three times bigger than that for men. “The economic precarity and the social isolation that it causes are major problems for young women, particularly those living on their own,” says Yun Kim Ji-yeong of Konkuk University in Seoul. In addition, women with families have borne the brunt of home-schooling kids and looking after vulnerable relatives during the pandemic. Past experience suggests that economic distress may raise the suicide rate: around the financial crisis in 2008, both young men and young women took their lives in greater numbers, with the rate among women exceeding that among men for several years.

The government is taking the problem more seriously than in the past. In a meeting on suicide prevention at the end of November, officials vowed to expand support for those at risk, particularly young women in precarious circumstances. The national suicide hotline, which has been understaffed, is recruiting more sympathetic ears. Public-information campaigns have tried to reduce the taboos around mental health in recent years, and the government has become a bit keener to combat sexism. All of this is welcome. But if rising suicide rates are indeed the result of rapid social change, a quick reprieve is unlikely.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline "Deepening despair"

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/12/12/suicide-is-on-the-rise-among-south-korean-women
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