Women more prone to depression in Korea

Photo: The Straits Times

Park Sun-young, a 30-year-old nursing assistant at a medical clinic, is still bitter whenever she relives the moment her mother asked her to give up on her college dreams.

"She told me that there was no money in the house, and I should get a job instead (rather than going to college)," Park said.

What hurt Park even more was her mother's secret plan to borrow money from relatives to send her twin brother to study abroad. When Park confronted her mother about the issue, she was told that as a man her brother needed more education to support his family -- as the breadwinner -- once he gets married.

Although Park currently attends an online university part-time, she said she suffered from severe depression in her early 20s because she was unable to pursue her academic career at a full-time college while having to take on multiple jobs to support her low-income family.

"My depression definitely had to do with my mother's sexist favouritism," she said.

Park is one of many Korean women who have experienced depression at least once. According to a study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, Korean women, especially those who are financially and socially vulnerable, are much more prone to the disease than their male counterparts. While 9.1 per cent of all Korean women develop the condition at least once in their lives, only 4.3 per cent of Korean men experience the same, according to the study.

"I think it has to do with the traditional gender roles clashing in today's ever-changing Korean society," Kim Nam-soon, author of the study, told The Korea Herald.

"Traditionally, men are expected to be the breadwinners, while women are expected to be responsible for the domestic chores. The problem is that these values still exist while more women want to be educated and participate in the workforce. This situation can be very stressful for many women, especially those whose aspirations conflict with what's expected of them -- such as working mothers."

Kim's study also discovered that a woman's socioeconomic status and education level are closely linked to her chance of developing depression. While 24.8 per cent of Korean women who belong to the poorest 25 per cent of the population suffered from the disease, only 13.8 per cent of those in the wealthiest 25 per cent experienced the same.

Also, Korean women who never attended high school were 2.26 times more likely to develop depression than women who attended universities. While 31.7 per cent of female middle school graduates developed depression, only 14 per cent of female university graduates experienced the mental condition. Korean women who are unemployed -- including housewives and students -- were the most prone to the disease, while those who work in professions that do not require physical labour were least likely to be depressed.

While working to support her family in her 20s, Park Sun-young was often discriminated against by her employers for not attending university, and called "gojol" -- a term referring to those who never received higher education -- in a derogatory manner whenever she made mistakes at work.

During this period, she would very often cry at night, alone in her room.

"The most painful thing was watching my friends doing all the fun things while attending college, when I had to work grueling hours to support my family," she said.

Aside from social causes, there are biological and psychological causes of depression in women, the study said. Hormonal changes caused by menopause and pregnancy can contribute to depression, while women are more likely than men to develop depression from stress. Causes of stress that can trigger depression in women include persistent money problems, body image issues, poor work-life balance, and overwhelming family responsibilities such as caring for children or aging parents.

Kim from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs said gender equality is important not only for the social and welfare sector, but also for the nation's public health.

"We haven't researched further on why housewives and students are more vulnerable to depression than others," said Kim.

"But I assume that for housewives, it has to do with the common social (Korean) perception that devalues domestic chores. Cooking, cleaning and child care by mothers are still being taken for granted by many. When you find child care and domestic work stressful while you feel that your contributions are not being valued by your family members, it's easy to feel worthless, which can lead to depression."

For Park Sun-young, who is now a nursing assistant, attending the online university with a self-earned salary was what boosted her self-esteem.

"Many asked me why I would go to college at age 30," she said. "But I think I needed this for myself, to prove to myself that I accomplished something against all odds, in spite of the financial difficulties and the lack of support from my own family."