Student Suicides in South Korea



South Korea prides itself in the academic achievement of its young people. The country's 15-year-olds have the highest reading scores among developed countries, they rank third in proficiency in science and mathematics, and more than 80 percent of them will go to college. The glowing statistics, however, has a dark side: Korea's youth has one of the highest suicide rates. Suicide, in fact, is the leading cause of death among Koreans aged 15 to 24.

This year, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, the country’s most prestigious university, lost four of its students (and one professor) to suicide. For a high school kid who has been trained to constantly aim for academic excellence, getting into KAIST is a dream come true. But living this dream means a relentless struggle to survive the rigors of a highly competitive environment. The suffocating pressure of schoolwork is blamed as a big factor in pushing the students to end their lives.

It has often been said that suicide is a complex issue and we shouldn’t be too quick in pointing to a single cause for it, and rightly so. But it is also not difficult to imagine that intense academic pressure can cause serious stress and anxiety. For those who don’t have adequate coping mechanism and social support, it is an easy road to depression and erosion of self-esteem.

The pursuit of excellence in education can be all-consuming but it can also be dreadfully myopic. We aim to train students to have perfect grades and heads full of knowledge at the risk of producing walking zombies emptied of the desire to live. A New York Times article quoted a statement of the KAIST student council released after the fourth suicide in the school: “Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us. We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework… We no longer have the ability to laugh freely.”

Yes, education should develop and hone young people’s abilities, equip them with knowledge and skills, encourage them to be exceptional, and challenge them to be the best at what they do. But education should also teach them that their worth is not measured by their grades, that failure however awful it seems is not the end of the world, that they don’t have to constantly beat everyone else just to succeed, and that competitiveness tempered by compassion and empathy actually makes them a better person.

Photo credit: Creative Commons. High school class in South Korea.

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