Psychotherapy a stigma in S. Korea

July 8 2011 Psychotherapy a stigma in S. Korea

Despite growing stresses and depression, few talk openly about emotional problems

SEOUL: It can sometimes feel as if South Korea, overworked, overstressed and ever anxious, is on the verge of a national nervous breakdown, with a rising divorce rate, students who feel suffocated by academic pressures, a suicide rate among the highest in the world and a macho corporate culture that still encourages blackout drinking sessions after work.

More than 30 South Koreans kill themselves every day, and the suicides of entertainers, politicians, athletes and business leaders have become almost commonplace. The recent suicides of four students and a professor at the country's leading university shocked everyone, and in recent weeks a TV baseball announcer, two professional soccer players, a university president and the former lead singer in a popular boy band killed themselves.

And yet Koreans - while almost obsessively embracing Western innovations ranging from smartphones to the Internet and cosmetic surgery - have largely resisted Western psychotherapy for their growing anxieties, depression and stress. Talk-therapy modalities with psychiatrists, psychologists and other types of trained counsellors are only slowly being accepted, according to mental health experts in the country.

'Talking openly about emotional problems is still taboo,' said Dr Kim Hyong Soo, a psychologist and professor at Chosun University in Kwangju.

'With depression, the inclination for Koreans is to just bear with it and get over it,' he said. 'If someone goes to a psychoanalyst, they know they'll be stigmatised for the rest of their life. So they don't go.'

Even when Koreans do seek out counselling, the learning curve can be steep.

A prominent psychiatrist with a practice in Seoul, Dr Park Jin Seng, said it was not uncommon for some new patients to come to his office, talk over a problem for 40 minutes and then be shocked when they are presented with a bill.

'They'll say, 'I have to pay? Just for talking? I can do that for free with my friend or my pastor',' said Dr Park. Patients also baulk, he said, at the idea of spending more than a couple of sessions on talk therapy. Instead, most patients simply ask for, and expect, medication, said Dr Park. About a third of his patients come for counselling, and the rest rely on medication.

'Koreans are getting more comfortable with Western psychotherapy, but this is limited to the highly educated and those familiar with Western ways,' said Dr Oh Kyung Ja, a Harvard-trained professor of clinical psychology at Yonsei University in the capital Seoul.

South Korean society has traditionally been underpinned by Buddhist and Confucian values, which emphasise diligence, stoicism and modesty. Individual concerns are secondary. Preserving dignity, or 'face', is paramount.

Meanwhile, the country's suicide rate is nothing short of alarming, nearly three times higher than in the United States. The rate doubled in the decade between 1999 and 2009. Suicide pacts among strangers who meet online is a growing phenomenon. Suicides by drinking pesticides, hanging, or jumping from tall buildings are the most common.

Some experts trace South Korea's emotional malaise to the decline of these traditional values and the rise of the country as a modern industrial power, starting in the 1980s. South Korea, once even poorer than woeful North Korea, now boasts the world's 13th-largest economy.

'As the society became more oriented towards materialism, people started to compare themselves,' said Dr Park. 'There's a lot of competition now, even starting in childhood, and the goals of life have moved. We have a saying: 'If one cousin buys land, the other cousin gets a stomach-ache'.'


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