“I’m Suffering Now” – On Mental Illness in Korea

While teaching English here, in Korea, I did a lesson on “Feelings & Emotions”. The activities were basic with the students having to identify different situations with the corresponding emotions.

For the written section, I had the students write a sentence about how they feel: “I feel _______ because ________________.” Easy enough, right?

A good percentage of students copied a previous sentence on the worksheet, the more ballsy kids said they felt “bored” because they “hate English” and there were a few suck-ups who felt “happy” because they “love Teacher Kay.” Gotta love ’em.

Anyway, I had one student in particular who wrote “I feel sad because I cry every day”. After trying to talk to this low-level student about why she cries every day or why she’s sad, she was unable to express what she meant and the bell rang.

I talked to her regular English teacher about it and she said not to worry about her – she’s a troublemaker. A few weeks passed and I heard that this same student was cutting her wrists in the school bathroom. Her teacher’s response? “That girl is crazy, she must have some kind of issues.”

I get that middle school kids are going through that awful, hormone-raging adolescent stage where they feel every single emotion within a matter of minutes, but sometimes it shouldn’t always be ignored. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with just middle school. In general, feelings (especially negative ones) and problems overall are often completely ignored in Korea.

Students that are seriously struggling with their schoolwork are essentially avoided and inevitably left behind. The “special kids” are pointed out by teachers to other teachers, but no extra help or attention is given directly to them. When there are students that are not participating and I try to help them individually, I am told “not to worry, they’re special” so therefore, they should sit in their desk and sleep, rather than have any part in the class.

Mental illness is a hush-hush topic, despite the increasing amount of people that are depressed in this country. I read an article this past weekend about a man committing suicide in Busan, a nearby, touristy beach town. He jumped out of his 11-story apartment building and landed on his neighbor’s 5-year-old daughter, who was killed as well (CNN). After doing some more reading, I came across the most staggering and heartbreaking statistics. South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all developed countries in the world with 32 suicides per 100,000 people a year – which is more than 40 people a day that take their own lives (BBC). (Compared to the 12 per 100,000 suicides in the US).

The pressures are so high in this country to do well. Students must excel in school so they are pushed to be in class from 8am – 10pm 5 days a week. Employees are pressured at work to reach specific sales quotas or else they, themselves, must make the purchases to reach the store goals. These kinds of issues make suicide the leading cause of death in people under the age of 40.

korean kid

(SourceKorean Students Speak Up With Written Signs)

When these suicides are reported, the cause is always very specific – failing an exam or doing poorly at work. Mental illness is disregarded and overlooked. Another article I read had quotes from doctors admitting that they don’t do enough to help psychiatric patients and that they’re “screened” at the hospital (ABC).

Men are supposed to be the strong, dominant leader of the family so too many refuse to ask for help and even less would ever admit to having a problem – as evident through the 3:1 ratio of men vs. women committing suicide.

I came across this photo journal (“Korean Students Speak Up With Written Signs”) of Korean students expressing how they feel -for once- and they summed it up perfectly. I’m obviously no psychiatrist, but not being able to express yourself, mental illnesses being ignored, constant pressure in work/school and the highest suicide rate in the world all must have some kind of correlation.

Korean student


(SourceKorean Students Speak Up With Written Signs)

One comment

  1. The taboo of mental illness really reminds me of the way it is in Britain. Here you NEVER talk about your feelings and if you’re suffering from depression, you’re expected to just pull yourself together. There are no councilors or therapists ready available for those that need help and you’ll be lucky if you find a doctor who do anything more than prescribe some prozac just to shut you up for a while.

    I’m not surprised at all that this is affecting teenagers in Korea, though. I’ve done so much reading about the education system over there and the strong need to succeed that it really frustrates me. Education does not equal intelligence. And most people who are brought up with such an intense school system like this never get the opportunity to think outside the box and really develop their own opinions. They’re way too focused on trying to find the *right* answer.


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