Thursday, September 29, 2011

Suicide in Korea Series: II. The Numbers


[Series Index]

Before there can be any meaningful discussion about suicides in Korea, we need a clear picture on the facts about suicides first. Looking at the demographics and trends in suicide, one can glean the starting point on understanding the suicide phenomenon in Korea.

If you can read Korean, Statistics Korea -- the governmental body that periodically collects national statistics -- has the official collection of Korean death statistics. Here are highlights of suicide-related information that the Korean culled from the overall statistics. Table numbers in the bracket refer to the table numbers in the Statistics Korea page.

Who Commits Suicide?

- [Table 4] Overall, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in Korea as of 2009. But incredibly, when the cause of death is broken down by age, suicide is the leading cause of death for Koreans between the ages of 10 and 39. The large number of people dying from cancer beginning at age 40 end up pushing down suicide's ranking.

- [Table 6] In 2009, 15,413 Koreans died from suicide, which is 6.24% of all deaths in Korea that year. For the sake of comparison, the leading cause of death was cancer, which constituted 28.6% of all deaths.

- [Table 6] The number of suicides in 2009, broken down by age and gender:

Age
Male
Female
Total
Male/Total
10-19
247
199
446
0.55
20-29
932
875
1,807
0.52
30-39
1,528
1,114
2,642
0.58
40-49
2,010
846
2,856
0.7
50-59
1,965
632
2,597
0.76
60-69
1,530
544
2,074
0.74
70-79
1,191
708
1,899
0.63
80+
521
557
1,078
0.48

(Apologies if the tables turn out to be a little wacky -- Blogger does not seem to handle tables very well.)

One can see that the number of suicides peaks at ages 40-49 for men and 30-39 for women. Also notable is that the ratio between male and female suicides. Worldwide, suicide is overwhelmingly a male phenomenon -- in the OECD, male to female suicide rate is more than 3 to 1, or approximately 77% of all suicides. But in Korea, the number of male suicides never goes over 77% -- which means Korean women are far more suicidal than average women living in comparable economies.

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.



- [Table 7] The mortality rate, and the mortality rate involving suicide, broken down by age and gender:


Total Deaths (per 100,000)
Suicides (per 100,000)
Suicides/Total Deaths (%)

Total
Male
Female
Total
Male
Female

All ages
497.3
553.7
440.7
31
39.9
22.1
6.23
10-19
44.3
53.6
33.5
13
13.5
12.4
29.35
20-29
111.9
131.8
90.4
49.6
49.7
49.7
44.33
30-39
182.3
227.2
135.5
62.7
70.9
54.2
34.39
40-49
412.7
589.7
229.6
65.7
90.8
39.6
15.92
50-59
892.2
1326.3
457.9
82
123.8
40.1
9.19
60-69
2023.7
3012.8
1149.5
104
162.8
51.6
5.14
70-79
5893.6
8529.5
4227.3
162.6
257.5
101.8
2.76
80+
37928.2
47543.9
34534
394.2
671.8
295.2
1.04

One can see that the mortality rate involving suicide increases dramatically as the age goes up. This is contrary to the worldwide trend, where people proportionately commit less suicide as they get older. However, that is slightly misleading because it gives the inaccurate impression that older Koreans die mostly by suicide. So the last column was added to give a perspective of the proportion of suicides to total deaths. One can see that it comports with the data from Table 4 above, that for people aged 10 to 39, suicide is the leading cause of death -- partially because of the prevalence of suicide, partially because younger people are healthier and are less likely to die from causes other suicide (e.g. diseases).

- [Table 11] Suicides broken down by occupation, ages 15-64.

Occupation
Total Deaths
Suicides
Suicide/Total Deaths (%)
Total
74 347
11 251
6.61
Managers
1 545
220
7.02
Professionals
3 666
589
6.22
Clerks
5 204
961
5.42
Service and Sales
7 494
1 304
5.75
Agriculture, Horticulture
and Maritime
5 001
464
10.78
Craft & Related Trade
2 742
361
7.6
Plant & Machine Operators
1 349
188
7.18
Manual Laborers
3 417
458
7.46
Unemployed, Students, Homemakers
41 707
6 280
6.64
Other
2 222
426
5.22


Here, the notable part is that while the proportion of suicides is high among all occupations, farmers and fishermen apparently have a significantly higher suicide rate. This is consistent with the fact that older Koreans are more likely to commit suicide, because most farmers and fishermen in Korea tend to be older as the younger people all left for the city.

Yearly Trends

- [Table 5] shows that suicide has been around 7th or 8th leading cause of death between 1999 to 2002. Then the ranking jumps in 2003 to 5th leading cause of death. Between 2002 and 2003, the mortality rate attributable to suicide (per 100,000) jumped from 17.9 to 22.6. Between 2003 and 2009, suicide was either 4th or 5th leading cause of death in Korea.

- [Table 8] Mortality rate (per 100,000) attributable to suicide, from 1999 to 2009


Overall Mortality Rate
Suicide Mortality Rate
Change vs Prev. Yr (%)

Total
Male
Female
Total
Male
Female
Total
Male
Female
1999
520.2
576.0
464.0
15.0
20.9
9.0
n/a
n/a
n/a
2000
517.9
571.9
463.3
13.6
18.8
8.3
(9.33)
(10.05)
(7.78)
2001
504.5
557.8
450.7
14.4
20.2
8.6
5.88
7.45
3.61
2002
509.7
557.9
461.2
17.9
24.6
11.1
24.31
21.78
29.07
2003
506.1
556.6
455.4
22.6
31.0
14.1
26.26
26.02
27.03
2004
503.7
556.1
451.0
23.7
32.4
14.9
4.87
4.52
5.67
2005
501.0
550.5
451.1
24.7
32.9
16.4
4.22
1.54
10.07
2006
495.6
545.7
445.2
21.8
29.5
14.1
(11.74)
(10.33)
(14.02)
2007
498.4
547.9
448.7
24.8
31.5
18.1
13.76
6.78
28.37
2008
498.2
553.1
443.0
26.0
33.4
18.7
4.84
6.03
3.31
2009
497.3
553.7
440.7
31.0
39.9
22.1
19.23
19.46
18.18

For the purpose of understanding Korea’s suicide phenomenon, this chart may be the most helpful one. The first thing that jumps out is the sheer magnitude of increase. The overall mortality rate in Korea steadily decreased in Korea for the last ten years, but suicide mortality rate more than doubled. At 31 suicides per 100,000, Korea’s suicide mortality rate is nearly three times the OECD average of 11.1. Even more astonishing is that Korea’s suicide mortality rate was only 7.4 per 100,000 back in 1989 – in other words, the suicide rate doubled between 1989 and 1999, and doubled again between 1999 and 2009.

Another notable point is the rate of change between men and women. In the five years between 1999 and 2003, the suicide rate for both men and women rose and fell at an approximately same rate. But between 2004 and 2009 (and particularly in 2007,) the rate of women suicide increased dramatically.

Why Commit Suicide?

On a separate page of Statistics Korea, there is more information about suicidal impulses and what causes them.

- [Table 12] Suicidal impulse in 2010.


Suicidal Impulse Felt
Total
7.7
Male
6.3
Female
9.0
Age

15-19
10.1
20-29
7.5
30-39
7.7
40-49
8.6
50-59
8.2
60+
5.3

- [Table 12] Causes of suicidal impulse


Economic difficulties
Relation-ship/Dating
Disease/
disability
Job
Loneli-ness
Family issues
School grades
Dispute in social life
Other
Total
38.8
3.5
11.2
6.4
12.9
15.1
6.6
0.8
4.7
Male
44.9
3.7
11.3
9.8
11.0
8.6
6.9
0.6
3.2
Female
34.6
3.3
11.1
4.1
14.1
19.6
6.4
1.0
5.7
Age









15-19
10.5
1.9
2.2
1.6
11.2
12.6
53.4
3.8
2.8
20-29
30.0
7.0
5.9
15.0
16.5
12.9
5.3
1.0
6.4
30-39
37.4
3.4
4.8
9.5
17.4
20.5
 -
1.0
6.0
40-49
50.4
2.6
8.4
4.7
10.7
17.5
 -
0.3
5.5
50-59
52.7
3.3
14.2
4.4
9.4
14.1
 -
 -
2.0
60+
35.3
2.4
36.2
1.2
11.4
8.8
 -
 -
4.6


This chart may as well be called: “What stresses out Koreans.” The factors that stand out in this chart are not particularly surprising. School-year children are stressed out by grades. People in their 20s are worried about jobs, relationship and being alone. Middle-aged people are concerned about making a living, and older people are worried about their health.

One notable thing is that consistent with the world trend, older people tend to feel less suicidal – which conflicts with the actual result in which older Korean are proportionately more likely to commit suicide, as discussed above.

The Takeaways

Among the many insights could be gleaned from this set of data, the Korean would highlight the following:

- The factors that causes suicidal impulse for Koreans are not particularly surprising. The surprising part is that a huge number of Koreans carry out the impulse to practice.

- Although suicide numbers are high in all demographics of Koreans, women and the elderly are particularly at risk compared to the worldwide trend.

Korea's suicide phenomenon is a very recent phenomenon. About 20 years ago, Korea actually had a low suicide rate. Even as recently as 10 years or so ago, Korea's suicide rates were not out of step with the world average. So what happened to Korea around 10 years ago? That will be the starting point of our inquiry.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

11 comments:

  1. These numbers seem staggeringly high. Can you compare them to other developed countries? I'll be interested to see the rest of the series!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't have a source offhand, but I remember reading that in the early 1980s Korea had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world, and since then it has changed to having one of the highest. Do you have any statistics earlier than 1989?

    ReplyDelete
  3. In a country where so much money has been made in the past 20 years, how can over 6% of deaths be from suicide? What exactly is the Korean Dream, and how does it fail to deliver?

    its frightening (as a teacher) to think about how this suicidal impulse can be so strong from students who suffer from low grades.

    The first table shown (table 6) reveals the number of students from 10-19 that have committed suicide (Why does this chart start as low as 10 years old, unless that age of children are actually subject to this terrible trend?) Its a sickening thought.

    ReplyDelete
  4. When did the internet began to be easily accessed in South Korea? I think the internet plays a major role in suicide in South Korea. As the number of internet users rises, so does the number of suicides. Of course internet is not the only reason, but the internet does play a major role. Please check out this website "http://www.internetworldstats.com/asia/kr.htm" and also this one, "http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/20/world/asia/20iht-suicide.1.5788474.html?pagewanted=all"

    ReplyDelete
  5. Do you have any statistics earlier than 1989?

    Click on the link that gives the 1989 stats, and it will take you to Korean Wikipedia site that shows data back to 1983. The Korean is sure that the data exists somewhere, but he could not find it online.

    Why does this chart start as low as 10 years old, unless that age of children are actually subject to this terrible trend?

    Actually, the actual chart starts at 0 years old -- the actual chart lists every single possible manner of death for every Korean, and the ages are broken down by 5-year interval. It was the Korean's choice to start at 10 years old (because otherwise he would have had to start at 15 years old) and break it down by 10-year interval (because the chart would get too unwieldy at 5-year intervals.)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Are there any scientific studies on the leading cause of suicide in South Korea? I know there must be some contradictory views, as always, but there must be a pattern. Is the government addressing this issue? I know there were some very high-profile cases so this problem probably got some attention.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Very interesting indeed. Looking forward to more from this series.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm curious if medically assisted suicide in case of terminal illness is legal and/or practiced widely.
    I'd expect the debate in Korea to mirror that of abortion. Something that would definitely not be seen as a good thing, but wouldn't necessarily incite the same sort of debate that it does in the US.
    Looking forward to the rest of the series!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I checked up the annual Korean suicide statistics and noticed that the suicide rate began skyrocketing right after the so-called "IMF crisis" in 1997, which is totally understandable IMO. I was a university student at the time(I'm Korean), and I remember the "IMF crisis" was a huge turing point in every Koreans' lives. Jobs became unstable, regular jobs decreased, students suddenly lost all of their freedom and were thrown into a fierce struggle not to get unemployed. I had to join the army around that time because I lost my part-time jobs and ran into financial problems. When I returned to campus 2 years later everything was so much changed. Universities had turned into nothing more than "취업고시원(job-preparing hagwons)”. limitless competition became the dominant ideology, everyone was trying to survive by themselves and the sense of solidarity was completely destroyed. Individual stress went up, and the social bond needed to fight against this stress was cut off. Under such circumstances, how can you not expect that many more people would eventually turn to suicide?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi TK, do you by any chance know what percentage of suicides in Korea are committed by orphans? i work with orphan children here in korea and many of them talk about suicide. I know firsthand that there have been older orphans who commit suicide when they get out of the system.
    I know that starting in the late 80s, the Korean government made an effort to decrease and eventually stop international adoption which has resulted in many orphans staying in orphanages here. Maybe that could be a possible cause for the increase of suicide deaths?
    BTW, you should really do a post on Korea's orphans. I try to say uplifting things to them but i don't really know what their options truly will be when they get older and it saddens me.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/09/world/asia/09adopt.html?pagewanted=all

    ReplyDelete
  11. Thank you very much for struggling with these data. The rise in Korean suicide (so that Korea now resembles Japan) is very very disturbing.

    ReplyDelete

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