Despite being among the wealthiest countries in the world, Japan and South Korea have had the highest suicide rates among OECD countries for the past decade. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic causing financial burdens and social isolation, mental health-related incidents in East Asia are skyrocketing. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health problems in these countries, people are reluctant to ask for help. Due to the government’s continuous negligence in addressing this issue, the mental health crisis has been exacerbated by the pandemic and must now be addressed.
Mental health has been an overlooked issue in South Korea and Japan for generations. The rigorous competition in academia and employment has been especially detrimental to youth's mental well-being. Likewise, adults and elderly are more likely to suffer severe depression from loneliness in Japan than in any other developed country. Although state-funded facilities are available, people do not seek help due to the stigma surrounding mental health in cultures where efficiency is more highly valued. Claiming to be depressed or anxious is seen as either a common emotion that does not warrant healthcare or as a sign of a lack of discipline. In South Korea, for example, depression and ADHD are viewed as a sign of weakness rather than a health concern. This attitude towards mental health is not limited to Asian countries with studies showing that Asian Americans are also less likely to seek mental health support due to the feelings of shame and the fear of it reflecting poorly on their reputations.
These factors have a major consequence for the mental well-being of East Asians. In South Korea the annual rate of individuals diagnosed with depression is 5.3%, a rise from 2.8% in 2002. Considering the reluctance of South Koreans to seek a diagnosis, the real rates may be even higher. What is even more concerning is that the treatment rate for episodes of major depressive episodes was only 39.2% and only 38% of these patients received treatment. In Japan, suicide rates were the 3rd highest among all OECD countries in 2012, while Korea was reported to have the highest annual suicide rate in the world.
Due to the financial and social hardships brought upon by COVID-19, these statistics are only getting worse. Despite handling the pandemic far more effectively than Europe or the United States, Japan saw an increase in suicide rates, demonstrating the detrimental effect of the pandemic on mental health. Last August, the number of women attempting suicide jumped by 40% and the overall suicide rate increased by 15.4%. The main reason for this jump is the economic hardship as many became unemployed as a result of COVID-19.
In summary, mental health is a troubling epidemic in South Korea and Japan which doesn't receive enough support from the government and gets little validity from ordinary citizens. Because this crisis was never appropriately addressed, the already staggering statistics of mental health incidents in East Asia have only increased and are not predicted to drop until sufficient preventive actions are taken - both from the government and the people.
1. Kim, Ga Eun, et al. “Increased Prevalence of Depression in South Korea from 2002 to 2013.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 12 Oct. 2020, www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-74119-4.
2. Targum, Steven D, and Junko Kitanaka. “Overwork Suicide in Japan: a National Crisis.” Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, Matrix Medical Communications, Feb. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3312902/.
3. Craft, Lucy. “Suicide Claimed More Japanese Lives in October than 10 Months of COVID.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 13 Nov. 2020, www.cbsnews.com/news/japan-suicide-coronavirus-more-japanese-suicides-in-october-than-total-covid-deaths/.
4. Tomisawa, Ayai, and Marika Katanuma. “Suicide Spike in Japan Shows Mental Health Toll of COVID-19.” The Japan Times, www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/10/09/national/social-issues/suicide-mental-health-coronavirus/.