The Korea Herald


South Korea unveils plan to tackle ailing mental health

Aiming to bring suicide rate back to OECD average, Koreans aged 20-34 to get mental health checkups every 2 years

By Park Jun-hee

Published : Dec. 5, 2023 - 17:04

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South Korea on Tuesday rolled out a comprehensive plan to offer mental health checkups every two years for young Koreans aged 20 to 34 and other counseling services tailored to all age groups, in the first-ever detailed state policy aimed at tackling the country’s consistently high suicide rates.

Korea has recorded the highest suicide rate among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for almost 20 years, with 25.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2022, more than double the OECD average of 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the organization’s data released in September.

Nearly 40,000 South Koreans took their own lives over the past three years, with the suicide rate increasing among younger people, showed data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency submitted to Rep. Baek Jong-hean of the ruling People Power Party in October.

To tackle the country’s consistently waning mental health, the government will implement mental health checkups once every two years, starting with those aged between 20 and 34 and later expanding to all age groups to detect warning signs early on. An updated target disease list will include depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Currently, the state provides mental health checkups for Koreans aged between 20 and 70 every 10 years.

The government also plans to beef up follow-up management by joining forces with mental health welfare centers and hospitals’ psychiatric departments after the examination.

The new state drive was announced by President Yoon Suk Yeol at a meeting on mental health policy the same day. Yoon said he would form a new presidential committee to map out mental health policies, as well as look after investments and infrastructure for mental care.

He stressed the significance of having good mental health for the country’s future growth, reflecting on the ailing birth rate. Yoon also vowed to revamp the state support system to prevent mental problems and help individuals’ recovery.

“Now is the time for the country to take active measures to ensure the mental (health) of its people. Mental health issues are not something individuals can take care of (by themselves),” Yoon said. “We must make it an important national agenda and seek solutions.”

The plan also includes providing psychological counseling services to 80,000 people next year and expanding the number to some 1 million people by 2027 to help individuals experiencing early signs of mental challenges make a quick recovery.

The government will also designate the phone number 109 as a new mental health crisis hotline, and provide online text message therapy for youth and young adults who may prefer nonverbal methods of communication.

“By investing boldly in public mental health, we will create a society where all citizens can use mental health services anytime, anywhere, and where mentally ill people can receive proper treatment and live together,” Minister of Health and Welfare Cho Kyu-hong said in an online briefing to reporters.

For a more effective prevention and recovery approach, the Health Ministry and the Korean National Police Agency will establish a joint emergency response center operating 24/7 with police officers and health care professionals in 17 regions to increase efficiency in emergency responses for those with severe mental health problems.

In addition, the ministry plans to review whether to introduce a “judicial hospitalization system,” where a mentally ill person could be subject to hospitalization by court order. It also plans to consider implementing Psychiatric Advance Directives, a legal tool that allows a person with mental illness to state their preferences for treatment in advance of a crisis.

The ministry seeks to expand emergency regional medical centers for psychiatric patients with either trauma or mental illness nationwide by 2025, as well as to secure more psychiatric emergency beds and increase information sharing for mental health among related authorities.

Other measures include hiring 100 phone service counselors, nurturing some 228,000 mental health professionals by 2027 -- up 34,000 from the 2019 figure of 194,000 -- and improving their working conditions. Korea also aims to add more rehabilitation centers to help those struggling with mental health issues return to society.

Starting in July next year, the Health Ministry will initiate training on suicide prevention for 16 million people. The anti-suicide toolkit will include how to ask for help when struggling with suicidal thoughts and how to notice the warning signs.

Moreover, the ministry will launch a nationwide campaign to curb stigma against people with mental illness by teaming up with organizations at universities and mental health advocacy groups. It plans to come up with media reporting guidelines on mental health to minimize discrimination and bias.

The ministry declined to comment on a financial estimate, explaining it is difficult to outline each scheme’s budget.


If you’re thinking about self-harm or suicide, contact the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s helpline at 1393, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please request a translator for English-language services.