Friday, April 2, 2010

English teacher in Pusan reportedly commits suicide

The Korea Times is reporting that a thirty-five-year-old teacher, identified only by his family name of Kim, is believed to have killed himself in the southeastern city of Pusan:
A Korean-Canadian, who worked in Busan as a native English teacher, was found dead in an apparent suicide, police said Thursday.

Police said the teacher identified by his surname Kim, was found hanging at home near Haeundae, a scenic beach in the nation's second largest city, at 5:20 p.m. Wednesday. The head of a private language institute where the 35-year-old Canadian worked first reported it to police.

He told them that he found the teacher hanging in the living room when he visited the apartment, as the teacher missed work and did not respond to repeated phone calls, Wednesday.

"We believe it's a suicide because no signs of foul play were found on the body," a detective familiar with the case said. "But we will continue to investigate to find the exact cause of death."
I have no idea who this person is, but these kinds of stories always just break my heart. Of course, in the general population of South Koreans, suicide is at epidemic levels, with the notion of killing oneself as a means to escape having reached the status of normative behavior, even to the point of being considered brave and courageous.

While there certainly are personal hazards in South Korea for anglophones and other international residents, including actual deaths due to fires, drownings, car accidents, and other situations, suicide among the expatriate population is not so commonly heard. The death in China of Shawn Matthews, a well-known blogger who had once lived and blogged in Korea, is a case that sticks out in my mind. There may be others and we just simply don't hear about them.

And this brings up that age-old question of what we anglophones in South Korea can do if we ourselves are feeling depressed, suicidal, or just simply emotionally distraught over our lives or some event, or if we know someone else who is feeling this way. Back in 2006, I wrote this comment about that very topic:
I think you may be right, but whether the number is higher, about the same, or even lower than with the same group “back home,” I think getting help is not just a matter of stigma, but also of access to someone here (in Korea; perhaps in China and Japan, too) who can properly diagnose you and then properly treat you.

Even if an international resident might be able to cut through the stigma that Korean-Koreans often can’t, the question is: who can you go to who will know that it’s bipolar disorder that you’ve got? Among the things possibly in play, there’s a language barrier, a cultural barrier, plus a knowledge barrier (frankly, since psychiatric doctors have so few cases to work with — particularly non-native Korean-speaking patients — they might not always see the signs).

I really didn’t read Shawn’s blog more than once or twice, so I don’t know if he sought treatment or not, but I know of people with serious problems who sought help and were eventually told, “Oh, this is just the stress of being in a new culture,” or “Give it time, and you’ll get over him/her.” Needless to say, it didn’t always help, and it certainly wasn’t what was needed.
A lot of people assume that with so many suicides in South Korea that there must not be a lot of mental health resources. In my opinion, the opposite is true: there are loads of resources but they are underutilized. This is something even psychiatrists themselves (people I meet in my own public health research) have told me.

Simply put, the stigma is just too great; ironically, that shame is greater than suicide itself in all too many cases. And that disgrace and dishonor extends not just to the individual, but to the family as well. A new national narrative must be put out there that most problems people face are actually quite manageable.

I'm not sure how much the stigma extends to those living in Korea who did not grow up here. Many Koreans from overseas, especially 1.5 and second generation kyopo, hold some of the same dysfunctional views on mental health stigma that their Korea-born and -raised counterparts do. Some non-Koreans living in Korea may also find themselves subject to the same social strictures that prevent the majority population from getting help.

But even if one were to overcome such stigma, where are the resources? In Seoul there used to be a counseling center associated with the Lutheran Church in Hannam-dong, but it was a bit costly. I imagine the various international clinics can put patients in touch with Korean psychologists and psychiatrists, but will the language barrier prove a barrier to treatment? Are there English-fluent mental health professionals and other counselors who can help out anglophones and other foreign residents?

I encourage my readers to share their ideas here. Maybe at some point we can make a FAQ, if one does not already exist. And for the love of God, if you are feeling any kind of depression or suicidal feelings, please talk to someone, even if it's not a mental health professional. The expat community is full of caring individuals who will bend over backward to help someone in need, and there is no shortage of Koreans who are also willing to do the same. And please, if you suspect a friend, colleague, or relative of having such dark thoughts, please go talk to them.

Requiescat in pace, Mr Kim. It's too late for you to seek help and I'm very sorry you felt you could not escape whatever demons you faced, but I hope at least your own death can provide a wake-up call to others.

UPDATE (February 23, 2011):
In the wake of another English teacher's apparent suicide in Pusan, ATEK is putting the word out about how to get help.


  1. What a shame... It really does seem like help isn't readily available. I know a lot of foreigners who've found it difficult to get along in Korea for a variety of reasons. Most of them choose to leave, and find happiness elsewhere.

    This case makes me wonder - What does this person look like? The report says "Korean-Canadian"... But I wouldn't be surprised if the poor guy was half white or black.

    I've known a number of mixed race people who've come to Korea because they were taught that their Korean blood was special... Only to find that they don't look Korean enough and are treated like scum.

    Just a theory. Whatever the case, it's a damn tragedy.

  2. I saw a report about this in the Busan Ilbo yesterday (which is the only report a naver search turns up).

  3. This is tragic! I only just heard about it. I live in Busan and I haven't seen any news reports about it.

    For English teachers facing hard times, ATEK has 'Emergency Needs Officers' who are developing resources to help people in need. They can direct anyone to the appropriate places and help with some tangible needs like housing, food, and mediation.

    Although these services are still developing the officers can at least help by finding local counseling.

    If you are interested in this role anywhere in Korea please contact our national membership officer to learn how to help.

    I'd like more info abou this case.

  4. Brian sent me a link to a Korean-language version of the story he later found.

    That's good to know about ATEK's services; this is definitely the kind of thing I'd like to see ATEK doing, since an organizations like that may be among the best positioned to offer such services. I would love to hear more about these services as they develop, and maybe even write up something myself this summer when I head back, if I have a chance to "interview" some people involved with this.

  5. matt, sorry, I just realized you had left that link as well. Thanks for that.


Share your thoughts, but please be kind and respectful. My mom reads this blog.