The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Mental health care matters

Government has to expand medical facilities and try to clear stigma around mental illness

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 8, 2023 - 05:30

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As far as mental health care is concerned, South Korea has grim statistics. Over 1 million people suffer from depression, suicide rates remain stubbornly high and a growing number of people are seeking medical help. Worse, doctors and medical facilities meant to treat patients suffering from mental illness are in short supply.

To address the serious situation, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration on Tuesday unveiled a comprehensive initiative to overhaul and improve the mental health care system -- a belated yet much-needed step forward.

For almost two decades, Korea has maintained the unenviable position of having the highest suicide rate among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member nations. In 2022, the figure stood at 25.2 suicides per 100,000 individuals, more than double the OECD’s average of 10.6 per 100,000 people.

Shockingly, nearly 40,000 South Koreans took their own lives over the past three years, with a worrying spike in suicides among the younger population, according to data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

The number of people who were treated for mental health problems was 4.11 million in 2021, up a whopping 72 percent from 2.89 million in 2015. In particular, more than 650,000 people received treatment for severe mental illnesses in 2021, but local communities currently hold data about only 160,000 people with records of mental health problems. This suggests that the government has no data about a sizable number of people with severe symptoms.

Against this depressing backdrop, the government’s comprehensive policy plan includes the launch of a biennial mental health screening program initially targeting people aged 20 to 34. The checkup will expand later to encompass all ages.

The objective is to promptly detect signs of conditions like depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, departing from the current system where the state mental health checkups are provided every 10 years for individuals aged 20 to 70.

As part of an initial plan, the government will provide psychological counseling services to 80,000 people next year and expand the number to 1 million people by 2027 to help individuals experiencing early signs of mental challenges.

The government said it will designate the phone number 109 as a new mental health crisis hotline. In addition, the Health Ministry and the Korean National Police Agency will launch a joint emergency response center that will run 24/7 with more police officers and medical professionals to respond to those with severe mental health problems without delay.

It is also notable that the government aims to collaborate with regional mental health welfare centers and psychiatric departments of hospitals to provide ongoing support, while exploring the pros and cons of the “judicial hospitalization system,” in which a mentally ill person could be hospitalized by court order in a bid to prevent tragic accidents.

To implement the ambitious plan, however, the government has a long and tough road ahead. Among myriad issues, two challenges stand out: the chronic shortage of medical professionals and facilities dedicated to mental health care and the deep-seated stigma against people with mental illness in Korean society.

Among 226 cities, provinces and counties, about half do not have a single mental health rehabilitation center. The current capacity of related facilities is limited to just 6,900 patients. To address the shortage, the government has to establish new facilities, but this is a time-consuming, dispute-laden undertaking, since local residents tend to strongly protest against such mental health centers.

Koreans have long sought to hide medical records regarding mental health treatment for fear of getting stigmatized in their communities and facing disadvantages in getting a job or seeking a promotion at work.

The government has finally taken its initial step to deal with the country’s mental health care crisis marked by high suicide rates and soaring numbers of patients. But this is no easy task. The government is urged to take various measures in the long term, starting with the expansion of medical infrastructure and efforts to change public perception about mental illness.

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