For little under a year, I have been working with Groove Korea on an article that finally hit the shelves this month. (It is also published on their site.) Below is the original post I wrote, which is a more personal take on student suicide:
I wasn’t shocked when they told me that my student had committed suicide.
There had been 11 cases of student suicide in my city – Daegu – at that point, and two further attempts. It was also the top cause of death for youth in 2011. Every day, around 40 people kill themselves in South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate amongst the 30 OECD countries and is second in the world according to the most recent WHO research. It was a matter of time before it happened to someone I knew.
My 15-year-old student jumped out of her seventh story apartment window. This method of suicide seems to be common, presumably because most middle class Koreans live in apartment buildings. My knowledge of the details surrounding her death was limited: I knew she was worried about her grades, and that she had fallen out with some of her friends. Following the incident, the school put teachers and parents on alert for copycat suicides, a Korean trend that had been particularly prevalent among Daegu students that year.
Since the suicide of a middle school boy in this city late 2011, the Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education had taken feeble measures to address the issue, including restricting access to school roofs and barring windows. Some of my colleagues told me that teachers were asked to limit open windows to 20 cm wide. Apart from the fact that Daegu summers (which are notoriously sweltering) rendered this a preposterous request, it seemed absurd to treat the symptoms of this social problem rather than address its root causes.
What is Killing Daegu’s Children?
The city has long been reputed as the most conservative in Korea, and psychology Professor Choi Seung-Won argues that this leads to a lack of communication between students and teachers, which causes students to feel isolated. However, with the advent of mobile technology and social media, it seemed to me that teachers are more connected to their students than ever before. When I first started working at the school, I was surprised by the close relationship that teachers – particularly homeroom teachers – have with their students. When I was a pupil, we didn’t know our teachers’ first names, and definitely not their phone numbers. Many of the teachers in that school seemed to have regular contact with their students online. And, since they spend much more time with the students than parents do, teachers occupy a far greater role in students’ lives in Korea. So, while I agree that a conservative approach to school and government policy is one of the roots of this problem, it doesn’t seem fair to associate conservatism with a lack of communication in this case. Rather, I think that Daegu’s conservatism tends to put strain on the relationship between students – who live in an increasingly liberal world and have access to information unlike any generation before them – and their authority figures. In addition, conservative schools are more likely to conform to the status quo – a social climate that currently gives young people the huge responsibility of driving the country’s rapid development.
As is the case with my student, most suicides mention bullying and academic pressure in the notes they leave behind. Success has a very narrow definition in Korea, and is greatly associated with reputation or the concept of “face”. With students under enormous pressure to perform academically, and maintain an image that is continually judged by both adults and peers, it’s easy to fail, and society is harsh on those who don’t measure up. As The Economist mentions:
“Korean society’s strong focus on appearances—having the right education, job or perceived level of success—is a big factor in the high suicide rate. ‘Koreans always want to show their best image to other people,’ [says Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University] ‘but when this cannot be maintained, it can lead to a desire simply to give up’.”
The pressure to succeed at school (and thus enter a prestigious university and get a job at a prestigious company) originates in the country’s competitive education system and is supported by parents. I wish I had told my student that grades were not the only measure of success, but I doubt it would have made a difference. Considering the hours dedicated to studying at most high schools, it’s no wonder that it was difficult for her to imagine anything outside of her life at school being of any importance. Where I worked, students study for between 13-15 hours a day, and some don’t go home at all – the school had recently unveiled its new dormitory, which accommodates those who want to cut down on time spent commuting so they can study for longer hours.
Apart from the Korean education system’s overemphasis on grades, Human Rights Monitor South Korea suggests that teaching methodologies are also compound the problem, as they focus on “strict teaching styles such as memorizing knowledge including cramming education and ranking all the students from top to bottom. Moreover, schools do not teach students creative thinking and how to respect others well.” If students are constantly shown that perfect scores are the only means to succeed, and are all competing for a position in the same universities and companies, they inevitably disregard alternative philosophies.
A Culture of Suicide?
It’s not just high school students that are feeling the desperation for escape from contemporary Korean society. In 2011, four students at the Korean National University of Arts committed suicide in the space of five months. In the same year at Daejeon’s KAIST, four students and a professor took their own lives. In Seoul, six residents of an apartment block killed themselves in a three-month period in early 2012.
With South Korea’s economic boom and rapid development in social welfare, it seems odd that contemporary Koreans are more likely to take their own lives than their ancestors – who survived war and great poverty. I struggled to understand how a country like South Africa – my home – has a lower suicide rate amidst a host of social problems and an economy that puts most people below the breadline. After some research on global wellbeing, I discovered that some of the world’s happiest nations are developing countries. Social and cultural pressure seems to affect the human psyche in ways far different than poverty. As “The Korean” of Ask a Korean says, it is precisely this rapid development that breeds an environment conducive to suicidal impulses. His astute analysis of suicide amongst middle-aged men, celebrities and socio-political leaders explains this phenomenon in detail. However, while The Korean argues that there is nothing specifically cultural about suicide in Korea, I would say that the national obsession with education and massive emphasis on social image – both of which are fundamental to contemporary Korean culture – are large contributors.
Daegu’s suicides have alerted Korean society to the problems that an education system geared towards preparing students’ for one university entrance exam – the CSAT – has caused. Parents have called for the resignation of Woo Tong-Ki, superintendent of the Daegu Metropolitan Office of Education, and “for changes in the competition driven system centered on university admissions”, saying that “changes must be made to the current college admission system, [in which] students fiercely compete for admission to elite universities”.
As a cog in the machine that drives this system, I have often observed that students are well-aware of its flaws. This has caused a mistrust and resentment for those in authority, and I can see why. I have spoken to many individual parents and teachers that disagree with the education system, and yet take steps to support it – none of them feel able to take an individual stand. Parents continue to send their children to hagwons in fear that they may deprive their children of the tools to compete in contemporary Korea if they don’t. Teachers and principals continue to use methods they don’t support, as they feel unable to challenge the status quo.
The students cannot rely on their guardians to ensure their wellbeing, and they know it. For now, students are resorting to suicide as a means to take control of their lives. When they reach adulthood, I suspect that their mistrust of the previous generation will be a foundation for some dramatic changes in the education system – and Korean culture at large.