By all indicators, Korea is not a happy society. Korea had the highest suicide rate among member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development last year. At 29.1 persons per 100,000, Korea's suicide rate was more than twice the OECD average of 11.9 persons per 100,000.
A local survey of 1,000 Koreans aged 20-59 showed 36 per cent of the respondents saying they were unhappy. A third of the respondents reported experiencing emotional stress and 56 per cent said they suspected they had depression.
Yet, the recent OECD Health at a Glance 2015 report shows that Korea consumed the second lowest portion of antidepressants among the 28 countries surveyed in 2013. The defined daily dose per 1,000 people per day for Korea stood at 20. Chile ranked the lowest with 13, while the OECD average was 58.
The antidepressants consumption data shows something is amiss. Despite having the highest suicide rate and scoring poorly on indicators of happiness and life satisfaction, Koreans score at the bottom when it comes to taking medication to treat depression.
There is a simple explanation for this phenomenon: social stigma attached to mental health conditions. Because mental health is a taboo subject and mental illnesses carry with them a searing social stigma, one's state of mental health is not talked about and most people are reluctant to see doctors.
The OECD health report noted that in countries where antidepressants consumption is very low, as in Korea, there may be a case for addressing unmet needs. This is precisely the condition in Korea, where patients and their families hide their mental health conditions and do not seek medical help until the illness has progressed to the point where it cannot be ignored or hidden. By then, the illnesses are often difficult to treat.
Depression, which may lead to attempts at suicide among 15 per cent of patients, can be suitably managed with medication. Medical professionals generally agree that up to 90 per cent of depression cases improve within four to eight weeks of starting on antidepressants.
It is lamentable that the majority of people struggle to deal with depression on their own when medication can vastly improve their lives and can prevent them from spiraling into worse conditions. Seeking medical help at an early stage can save many lives as well.
Koreans should bring mental health into public discussion and work to remove the social stigma that stands in the way of seeking treatment.