'1 in 6 Koreans has mental illness'

Bae Ji-sook in Seoul/The Korea Herald
Asia News Network

Seoul (The Korea Herald/ANN) - One in six Koreans has experienced mental illness over the past year, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said Wednesday.

However, only 15.3 per cent of mentally ill people seek professional help, raising concerns that such illnesses could affect more people in the near future.

According to the ministry's recent face-to-face in-depth survey of 6,022 people nationwide aged over 18, about 16 per cent had suffered from a mental disorder within the previous year.

It means roughly 5.7 million people in the country may have psychiatric illnesses, the researchers said.

Excluding alcohol and nicotine addictions, the portion goes down to 10.2 per cent but still marks an increase from 8.3 per cent in 2006.

The Ministry estimates that Koreans have a 27.6 per cent chance of suffering a mental disorder in their lifetime. Excluding alcohol and nicotine reliance, the figure drops to 14.4 per cent.

The survey noted a growing number of people diagnosed with depression, a major factor in suicide. About 4.2 per cent of women and 1.8 per cent of men suffered from depression last year, a jump of about 150 per cent from 2.9 per cent in 2001 among women and 0.7 per cent among men. About 6.7 per cent of people here will suffer from depression more than once in their lifetime, the report suggested.

"About 70-80 per cent of those who killed themselves had suffered from depression," said Lim Jong-gyu, a ministry official.

About 15.6 per cent of the population had felt suicidal urges and about 3.3 per cent had planned suicide. About 3.2 per cent attempted suicide. About 108,000 people are estimated to have attempted to kill themselves last year, Lim said.

Professor Cho Maeng-je of Seoul National University, who conducted the research, attributed modern society's hectic schedule, fierce competition, economic difficulties and other causes of extreme stress as the reasons for the soaring figures.

"We might see more people with mental instabilities if we do not take appropriate measures now," he said.

Cho urged the government to intensify early screening of mental disorders. "In most cases, acquired mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety or compulsory disorders develop when one reaches 18-20 years old. Many of the diseases, except for depression, become chronic if not dealt at an early stage," Cho said.

Lim is working on comprehensive measures against mental illness to be announced in April.

Engaged with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the Health Ministry will adopt screening and treatment programs for those under 18 years old. For those over 18, management programs for stress as well as depression and suicide risk factors will be provided.

Moreover, a law revision will be sought to prevent discrimination against those with records of psychiatric treatment. Only 15.3 per cent of those who have had mental disorders visit doctors here, far lower than the U.S.' 39.2 per cent, Australia's 34.9 per cent and New Zealand's 38.9 per cent treatment rate. They fear a record of psychiatric illness could hinder their careers, the ministry explained.

"Currently, people who have received treatments over mental instabilities are discriminated against in acquiring certain licenses, certifications, registration and even occupations in some cases. This is why many people are reluctant to seek professional care even though their illness is evident," Lim said. "The revision of related laws will encourage people to seek help without the fear of being left out of from social activities."