Mental health checkup
Changes needed in perception, infrastructure
Korea has one of the world’s highest suicide rates, scores among the lowest on happiness indexes, a serious overdrinking problem, and ominous school violence. A word that best sums up such a society is ``abnormal.”
So it seems only natural, if long belated, that the government has decided to force Koreans to have regular mental health checkups from next year.
According to health-welfare ministry statistics, three out of 10 Korean adults have experienced one mental disorder or another. The prevalence of major mental ailments rose from 12.6 percent in 2006 to 14.4 percent last year. Only 15.3 percent of them have received counseling or treatment, less than half of the comparable rates of 39.2 percent for Americans and 34.9 percent for Australians.
A regimented society marked by excessive competition and deep-rooted prejudices against emotional illness have combined to result in a sharp increase in the number of mental patients and, at the same time, prevent them from visiting psychiatrists in a vicious circle.
Unlike people in most advanced countries who regard light depression as little more than a ``cold of the mind,” Koreans who visit psychiatrists are afraid of lasting medical records. The ministry is also right in this regard to sharply relax the criterion of mental disease, limiting them to only serious cases of paranoia, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders.
Critics of course have their reasons to oppose the mandatory checkups.
The most serious side effect is possible branding of people with even slight disorders as mentally problematic types, who suffer disadvantages in schooling and working. These concerns about what some experts call a ``medical scarlet letter” have sufficient grounds, given the poor ability of public and private organizations here to protect personal information from potential pilferers. No less serious is the still weak medical infrastructure to diagnose, accommodate and treat patients.
The dismal state of mental health in this society, however, should allow no more delays in awakening the people to the seriousness of this issue. Enhancing popular perceptions should go together with, not after, replenishing the medical infrastructure.
Both the government and people should realize most mental disorders are social ailments afflicting the underdogs and dropouts due to severe competition. For example, 22 dismissed workers of Ssanyong Motor have killed themselves or died of diseases since 2009, and 204 former and present employees of KT died of illness and other reasons between 2006 and 2011. Cancer and other physical ailments were direct reasons of death, but almost all of them complained about extreme stress and mental pain.
It is an established medical and sociological conclusion that a society’s mental state determines the frequency of suicides in it, and an unequal society drives its components into diseases, both physical and mental.
Korean society should try to treat patients it has made ill. Such social treatment seems impossible, given the mental condition of the incumbent administration marked by extreme exclusion for reasons of economic ability and ideological inclination.
On Dec. 19, voters must elect a leader who can heal the entire society, and through it, its components as well.