The shocking case involving a schizophrenic teenager kidnapping and killing an 8-year-old girl in Incheon last week has highlighted the country's failure to cope with the growing prevalence of mental disorders, as longstanding social stigmas on mental illness continue to hide the problem, experts said Monday.
The Incheon murder is the latest in a series of high-profile crimes involving schizophrenic patients in South Korea in recent years.
In May last year, a 23-year-old woman was stabbed to death in a restroom near Gangnam Station by a 34-year-old man with the same mental illness. The killer had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2008 and had since been hospitalised six times, a police investigation revealed.
In October, a policeman was shot in the back with a homemade gun by a 45-year-old suspect who also had a medical record of being treated for schizophrenia four times. Another schizophrenic patient in Incheon last month kicked his father to death after his father had sworn at him.
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by abnormal social behaviour and failure to understand what is real. Common symptoms include false beliefs, confused thinking, hearing voices that others do not hear and reduced social engagement.
The suspect in the killing last week, a 17-year-old high school dropout surnamed Kim, admitted to having strangled the girl to death with a cable wire, but said she does not remember the reasons for her action. She reportedly told her lawyer she thought the whole incident was a dream.
In Korea, approximately 500,000 people suffer from schizophrenia. Clear reasons behind the disorder have yet to be identified.
Schizophrenia can be treated with medication, but many suffering from the illness here refuse to get professional help, trying to hide their symptoms, local experts said. The social stigma attached to mental disorders prevents them from getting treatment, they added.
"We shouldn't assume that all schizophrenic patients are potential criminals," said Lee Soo-jung, a professor of criminal psychology at Gyeonggi University.
Schizophrenic patients can lead a normal life if they take medication, the expert stressed.
According to the Korean Neuropsychiatric Association, the number of crimes committed by those with mental disorders account for around 0.3 to 0.4 per cent of total crimes committed each year.
A separate report by the Supreme Prosecutors' Office showed that the crime rate of those with mental disorders was at 0.08 per cent, while that of those without disorders was at 1.2 per cent. The number of suspects under indictment with a mental disorder was 3,244 in 2015.
Some said the government should come up with measures to tackle the problem.
"Crimes committed by patients with mental disorders happen mostly when they were not receiving timely treatment," said a 55-year-old mother in Ilsan, who knows a family struggling to care for a schizophrenic child due to economic reasons.
"It would be helpful if the government provided financial support to patients such as subsidies for the medicines and other treatments," she said.
Experts stressed that the government should first create an environment for mental disorder patients to receive timely care and treatment, without fear of being sent to hospitals against their will.
An inconsiderate approach can only backfire, they said.
In June 2015, about one month after the Gangnam Station killing by a schizophrenic patient, the government rolled out measures aimed at preventing hate crimes against women and strengthening early discovery of criminals with mental conditions.
But it immediately faced backlash from rights groups, which called for apologies, as the government "shifted responsibilities of high-profile crimes to citizens with mental disorders," assuming them to be potential criminals.