Korean Suicides Raise Questions

Kim Ji-hoo

9/15: Update – This is getting out of hand.

There’s another sad story coming from Seoul this week:

A 23-year-old Korean actor hanged himself in his Seoul home on Monday, in  part because of homophobia, police suspect. Kim Ji-hoo recently came out publicly, and saw many of his scheduled appearances on television shows and at various events suddenly canceled, in addition to receiving numerous hateful messages on his website. This sad news comes right after the apparent suicide of transsexual entertainer Jang Chae-won on Friday. All of which, you know, gives one pause. [read the whole article here]

While this is bad enough, it becomes more troubling when you consider that this is the fourth Korean celebrity suicide in a little over a month. While this may just be an unrelated, purely coincidental spike in hi-profile deaths, it could also be indicative of a more disturbing trend.

Recent studies have shown that the act of suicide can in effect, become contagious. In his book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell examines several cultural epidemics and the mechanics behind them. One of his chapters dealt with the act of suicide, which Gladwell frames as a type of “script.” Once the script has been “written” and “preformed” by a well recognized member of a community, it then becomes easier for others to act in the same way. Compounding this issue is media coverage, which is capable of transmitting the script and all it’s details, to a much larger audience.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health:

Research finds an increase in suicide by readers or viewers when:

  • The number of stories about individual suicides increases
  • A particular death is reported at length or in many stories
  • The story of an individual death by suicide is placed on the front page or at the beginning of a broadcast
  • The headlines about specific suicide deaths are dramatic (A recent example: “Boy, 10, Kills Himself Over Poor Grades”)
  • None of this bodes well for Korea, which currently has the 7th highest suicide rate in the world. For the past two weeks the front pages of Korean newspapers have been plastered with coverage of these deaths. I don’t even speak the language and just from the pictures alone I can tell what’s happened. Hopefully this series of unfortunate deaths does not snowball into a larger problem, but more prevention is needed.

    One of the saddest realities of suicide is that is entirely preventable. If the death of Kim Ji-hoo teaches us anything, it is that tolerance and, to a greater extent, acceptance of others, can go a long way. In fact, it just might save a life.

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