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Experts call for measures to stop pandemic-driven suicides

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Women in their 20s, 30s vulnerable to depression, new book finds

By Lee Yeon-woo

Self-employed people are depicted in the media as a group of people who were among the hardest hit by COVID-19 as they were forced to shut down their business under stringent social distancing regulations that were firmly in place for well over a year after the pandemic outbreak.

But there is another demographic who are easily overlooked whose troubles are not properly addressed in the policymaking process: women in their 20s and 30s. A lack of proper attention to these vulnerable women has led to an increase in suicides.

Depression may strike women who are under pressure for any number of reasons, but especially from increased housework and chores, caring for their children and concerns over their children's health and safety with no way out in sight.

Women struggling with signs of depression since the start of the pandemic can be correlated with an increase in the suicide rate among young women, according to an expert.

Kim Hyun-soo, director of the Seoul Suicide Prevention Center, said suicide is not just the result of individual choice. Rather it is something the entire society is responsible for when these women are put in a position to consider death over life.

A generational gap is one of the elements forcing the younger women to feel that they are not understood, he said, noting what's worse is the older generation doesn't even try to understand their stressed-out younger fellow humans.

"Times have changed. But the older generation only tries to understand younger people from their own perspective," he told The Korea Times.

"The past was a battle with hunger and survival, but now young people are struggling with loneliness, and questions on the meaning of life. They experience struggle too. That's why the old generation is furious when young people say it's harsher nowadays to survive than in the past. Instead of trying to listen to them, they criticize youth for making little effort to change the circumstances surrounding them."

The pandemic has created a stressful environment for many women in their 20s and 30s.

Unmarried women are grappling with the worsening labor market as the pandemic has exacerbated job insecurity. Those who are employed have suffered wage cuts, or being laid off as the pandemic has continued, while unemployed people also find it tougher to find jobs. Married women are no exception. They face more housework as their husbands work from home and children attend online classes.

"The Loneliest Choice" Courtesy of BookHouse Publication

Korea has the highest suicide rate among nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Behind this, there are some unsettling facts. In 2020, half of those who died in their 20s died by suicide, according to Statistics Korea.

What's more surprising is that one in five people rushed to emergency rooms after attempted suicide are women in their 20s, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare. This number has increased by 33.5 percent from 2019.

As a co-author, Kim shared his 20 years of experience working in the fields of mental health and juvenile protection through a newly published book, titled "The Loneliest Choice," Kim and five other experts share their views about youth suicide and the issues that drive some to it.

Lee Hyeon-jung, a professor of the Department of Anthropology at Seoul National University and one of the co-authors, shares what she heard from some of her interviewees to help her readers understand what's on the minds of the young women who considered suicide.

"I met scores of random young women for my research. Surprisingly, more than half of the interviewees said they are feeling depressed or suffered depression at least once in their lifetime," Lee said.

She realized COVID-19 and its impact played a part in making them feel depressed.

The number of women in their 20s and 30s who turned to counseling services has increased by 40 percent after the pandemic, according to the Seoul Suicide Prevention Center.


Lee noted that there are many reasons behind women's pain.

She shared a story of a working mom with a first grader who took online class because of the pandemic. "She said she had no choice but to leave him alone at home. She was so worried about her kid and became so stressed out. She was thinking seriously about quitting her job," Lee quoted her interviewee as saying that her complex feelings about her child and the guilt for having not properly taken care of him eventually led her to think of suicide.

Prof. Lee said even though the women who considered suicide desperately desire help from others, they found it difficult to open their hearts and ask for help for various reasons.

"The young are the ones who work and contribute to society for decades considering Korea's life expectancy. So, if we lose them to suicide, the entire society is losing out," Prof. Lee added.

The book continues and suggests that one thing is indispensable to bring these women out of hopelessness and help them find meaning in their life ― a belief that the situation will get better if they push on. But they need good welfare policies to ameliorate the very idea of suicide.

"Most current policies are short-term, rather than long-term, and tend to support youth with one-off monetary benefits, such as subsidies," Prof. Lee Gi-yeon from Korea Human Resource Development Institute for Health and Welfare said.

He pointed out the fallacy of a job-oriented policy.

"Politicians attribute most of the problems to 'unemployment.' Policies should be sensibly devised to fit each young person's unique characteristics and desires," Prof. Lee said.

Except for student loans and national scholarships, other policies that target youths like startup funds and supporting young artists to perform in local theaters showed a reception rate of no more than five percent.

"How can we hear from youth outside of universities? How can we reflect youth who have no chance to participate in lawmaker's decision-making processes? Policies that lack their voices can be considered 'policy for youth' in name alone."

*If you need expert help due to depression or other mental health concerns, you can receive 24-hour counseling at the Korean Suicide Prevention Center's hotline at 1393.

Lee Yeon-woo

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