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Posted : 2008-01-20 20:17
Updated : 2008-01-20 20:17

Psychology in Korea

By Alex Lee

Psychology and mental health aren't issues most native Koreans or Korean Americans like to talk about. Even the word, ``crazy'' in Korean, is fraught with serious negative connotations.

After seeing all the negativity from ``the community'' my own Korean friends with depression have had to endure, it's hard not to think that most Koreans would still rather drink away their problems than actually talk about them.

A recent Korea Times article reported that more native Korean women and men in their 20s and 30s were seeking mental health services than ever.

Some experts I spoke with also told me that things were changing, but ― ironically for Korea ― quite slowly.

Kwon Jung-hye, a psychologist and director of Korea University's Marital Counseling Center, highlighted a definite shift in both Koreans' attitudes toward Western-style mental health therapy, as well as their willingness to seek help ― specifically in the last five to 10 years.

Not too long ago, Koreans viewed people with mental illness in a very cynical light.

Due in large part to Korea's rapid modernization, Westernization, and especially the Internet, Korean society today is more open about seeking mental health services than before.

Interestingly, according to Kwon, Korean children were a big catalyst for the change.

``Parents who sought treatment for their kids came first in Korea,'' she said, ``and then adults seeking treatment for themselves followed.''

During the 1990s, many counseling centers for children first began sprouting up around Seoul, largely because of Korean parents demand to help their stressed-out children deal with the rigors of studying and competing against their peers.

Not surprisingly, given Korean culture's emphasis on parents and their children, counseling for children remains more popular and socially acceptable than that of adults.

Issues over marriage and divorce also saw increasing requests for help from therapists.

Despite greater awareness, however, misunderstanding still exists, according to Choi Myoung-sik, a professor at Sogang University and committee member of the Korean Counseling Psychological Association.

He said most Koreans still view mental health treatment as something necessary only for serious patients. In addition, the majority of Koreans who seek help want to be ``cured'' ― like everything else in Korea ― ``quickly, quickly.''

Other psychologists I spoke with stressed the party line that it's impossible to generalize one patient's experience over that of another, let alone all Koreans over that of different racial groups

Nho Choong-rai, a professor of Social Welfare at Ewha Womans said that Koreans are tending to be more open about seeking mental health services.

Like many Westerners who seek ``alternative,'' ``Eastern'' medicine these days, many Koreans are also able to utilize both Western therapies with indigenous ones. As a result, Koreans today have ``more choices than they did before,'' he said.

There is another important distinction between native Koreans and Westerners, said Irene J. K. Park, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

In Eastern cultures, individuals tend to somaticize their psychological symptoms, such that physical ailments can be indicators of psychological distress. Consequently, she said, most Koreans and even Korean Americans seek out their primary care physicians for medical treatments rather than psychologists for a psychological disorder.

So what about the difference between native Koreans and Korean Americans?

``Korea is like a hell, but it's an interesting hell,'' said Nho, who spent all of his psychological practice in the United States. ``America is a very good haven, but it's a boring haven.''

He added that most native Koreans must contend with all the ``noises'' ― political, economic, and cultural ― that define high-pressure life in Korea. Saving face is also an undeniable obstacle to seeking help openly.

Contrastingly, his views on Korean American's situation were more favorable. Nho characterized their racial marginalization from the American mainstream ― something native Koreans in Korea do not face ― as both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, Korean Americans can afford to be ``selfish'' in their anonymity, whereas most native Koreans must obsess every minute about keeping up with the Joneses. On the other hand, because of such marginalization, Korean Americans may feel isolated.

But he was quick to point out that everything depends on the individual patient. How much racism and discrimination actually affects a Korean American's mental health depends greatly on their level of cultural acculturation, English proficiency, and family relationships, he said.

Most experts I spoke with still seemed to be of the view that that Korean Americans, being ``Western,'' were equally open to seeking therapy to the average American.

But Park cited evidence that suggested the contrary. A 2007 study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that 8.6 percent of Asian Americans sought some form of help for mental health issues compared to 18 percent of the general U.S. population.

Ultimately, it's hard to gauge exactly how much of the mental health scene is improving for Koreans. Experts tell me Koreans both inside and outside the motherland are changing, but only time will tell. For now at least, I know I feel better having talked about it.

Alex Lee is a frequent contributor to The Korea Times. He also reports for the Inter Press Service News Agency and volunteers at the Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA) in Seoul. He can be reached at kifacorea@gmail.com.

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