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South Korean suicides

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Here's the full text, if you need it:

SEOUL (Reuters) - Faced with a wave of suicides by South Koreans from all walks of life, Yoo Byoung-jong has taken on a new job.

The Seoul policeman now patrols bridges in the capital to try to stop desperate people hurling themselves into the murky waters of the Han River.

South Korean suicides have doubled in a decade and are now the leading cause of death for people in their 20s and 30s. Almost twice as many kill themselves as die in road accidents.

In a campaign to cut suicides by a fifth by 2010, a worried Health Ministry is running a special television commercial.

It opens with a lonely man walking on a bridge. A voice over says: "Think five minutes more before you give it all away ... Don't forget you have a loving family."

Other ministry plans include setting up more hotlines and training more suicide counselors. Authorities are also cracking down on Web sites that detail methods of suicide and sometimes even sell toxic chemicals.

The distressed individuals Yoo and his police colleagues at the bridge guard posts are hoping to keep alive range from students depressed over poor grades to credit card delinquents and disgraced politicians.

The statistics make grim reading.

South Korea (news - web sites) has the fourth-highest suicide rate among the 30 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

It recorded 22.8 suicide deaths for every 100,000 people in 2003 -- lower than Hungary, Finland and close neighbor Japan -- but the number is growing by about 1 percent each year, faster than in all other OECD nations.


Experts say some blame for this rising death toll must lie with the saturation media coverage given to recent high-profile suicides by top business leaders and celebrities which appeared to have sparked a string of copy-cat deaths.

"We saved 50 lives this year as many people turned to bridges as a place to die after news reports of such deaths or attempts by 'big shots'," said 38-year-old Yoo in late December.

Experts say the sometimes graphic reporting may have triggered a "Werther effect" -- the term sociologists coined to refer to a surge in suicides in Europe after publication of Goethe's tragic novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther."

Experts say the media frenzy around the shock 2003 suicide of prominent businessman Chung Mong-Hun, former chairman of the Hyundai Group conglomerate, helped fan the trend.

Chung jumped to his death from the 12th floor of his office after becoming the target of investigations into illegal political funding during the 2002 presidential election.

Last July, the government and civil associations urged media to avoid reporting specific methods and locations of suicides.

"In general, suicides tend to increase up to 17-fold after reports of such big deaths," said Lee Heung-shik, head of the Korea Suicide Prevention Center, which was set up in 2003.

"The suicide rate has risen rapidly over a couple of years. It's fortunate the government has started to take the issue seriously," said Lee, who is also a psychiatrist at Seoul's Yonsei University Hospital.

Last year saw a slew of suicides by influential people.

A city mayor, jailed for taking bribes, hanged himself in February and the former head of a construction firm was found dead in the Han river in March.

In June, the head of a food manufacturer, embroiled in a scandal over dumplings containing spoiled vegetables, flung himself to his death from a bridge over the Han.


Experts concede it is difficult to pin down reasons for the suicide surge, although a sluggish economy since a credit card boom turned sour two years seems to be one factor.

"It's hard to simplify the rationale. Suicides usually increase when social cohesion weakens or there are drastic economic or social changes," said Lee.

"A rise in credit card debts, a harsher economic environment, high divorce rate and growing social conflict are making people feel more suicidal."

A "misery index" -- compiled by the Finance Ministry and supposed to measure how economic difficulties affect people -- jumped to a 38-month high in August, the latest data available.

Seo Dong-woo, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, said the government must urgently introduce more welfare policies in a country with little in the way of a social safety net.

"The size of domestic suicide deaths is just like having a Taegu subway disaster every week. Over the last 10 years, the combined death toll stands at about 70,000."

Some 200 people died in the southern city of Taegu in 2003 after a subway arson attack sparked an inferno.

In spite of the difficulties, policeman Yoo said his work was not always fruitless.

"Very recently, we just managed to save a drunk man from the water who seemed to have monetary problems. We gave him heart massage and respiration. We do not always labor in vain."

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I didn't know Hungary and Finland had such high suicide rates. Finland might be SAD induced? Hungary? I've recently read that China has a very high (50% above the world average) and rising suicide rate, but don't know how it compares with other developing nations.

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Ukraine and Russia also have high suicide rates.

Based on the info below, more women in China commit suicide than men. In number terms, China has the most suicides. But its rate per 100,000 people is low when you compare it to the top ten countries having the highest suicide rates. Of course I think China's rate is growing too.


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Koreans drink a lot. The article mentions a link between alcoholism and suicides, which might explain the high rates in the Slavic countries. I don't know why Sri Lanka would have such a high suicide rate, however. India only has a rate of 9 per 100K to China's 16 per 100K.

Although up-to-date detailed national figures from all around the world were not available, according to WHO officials, former communist states -- Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Latvia and Hungary -- had the highest rates.

The next five were Sri Lanka, ex-Soviet Kazakhstan and Belarus, Slovenia and Finland, according to figures for the year 2000 issued by the Geneva-based Organization.

Alcoholism, a cause of the depression that leads to suicide, is traditionally strong in Russia and its Baltic neighbors, and restrictions on sale of strong drink -- as shown by a now-abandoned campaign in the last years of the old Soviet Union -- also help reduce the rates, Mehlum said.

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