SEOUL -- South Korea is reeling from the latest wave of suicides by popular actors and singers. The high-profile cases could prompt copycat cases despite government efforts to prevent people from taking their own lives.
Actor Cha In-ha was found dead at his home on Dec. 3. People close to him said they had noticed nothing unusual about him. He updated his Instagram account the day before his death.
He was the latest South Korean star to die by suicide, after Sulli, a former member of girl band f(x), who died on Oct. 14, and Goo Hara, a former member of another all-girl group, Kara, on Nov. 24. The news of their deaths sent shock waves through society.
Suicide is not uncommon in South Korea. The country has the highest suicide rate among the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to the OECD, its suicide rate per 100,000 people is 24.6. That is twice as high as the average among the member states and far higher than Japan's 15.2.
The high rate cannot be attributed to a single factor, but structural changes in South Korean society play a part. There has been a surge of nuclear families since the 1990s, and more and more elderly people are living alone. The pace of the increase has outpaced efforts to build social safety nets. The suicide rate among senior citizens exceeds 50 per 100,000.
South Koreans sometimes kill themselves as a way to protest, apologize or solve a problem, so self-inflicted death is not perceived as an entirely bad thing. Another reason is strong prejudice against mental illness, which makes it hard for people to seek medical treatment.
The government has issued suicide prevention basic plans three times since 2004 and taken measures such as opening suicide prevention centers, helping install platform doors at subway stations and banning the production and sale of highly toxic agrochemicals. The rate has fallen from the 2011 peak of 31.7.
But the impact of celebrity suicides could ruin these efforts.
"Suicides of people in show business have a large social impact," warned Baek Jong-woo, secretary-general of the Korea Association for Suicide Prevention. He is wary of the "Werther effect," in which the suicide of a famous person triggers copycat suicides.
The term comes from "The Sorrow of Young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The protagonist kills himself because of unrequited love. The novel became an international bestseller, and many men in Europe emulated Werther's death.
Baek experienced the power of the effect firsthand after the 2008 suicide of actress Choi Jin-sil. "Her death impacted so many people. More than 1,000 people killed themselves after her. It was when I first lost a patient to suicide," he said.
What worries him now is that the Werther effect is resurging.
According to Statistics Korea, 13,670 people took their own lives in 2018, up 1,207 (9.7%) from a year before. It was the first increase in five years. The suicide rate rose 9.5% to 26.6. The rises are partly attributed to the suicide of Jonghyun, a member of pop group SHINee, in December 2017 and the suicides of actors in 2018.
Celebrities have other reasons for suicide. They are constantly subjected to online abuse. Goo Hara became a target over her lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend. When news broke that the defendant had threatened to release an explicit video of her, the internet was inundated with requests for the footage.
Another reason is the way young talents are trained. Would-be stars live in dormitories and spend most of their time on lessons, often rising to stardom with little social experience. They have contact with only a limited number of people and have no close friends to share their troubles with. "They are lonely and cannot seek help from anyone. Their management agencies need to take extra measures to protect their lives," Baek said.
Agencies are not sitting idly by. One major agency said it provides educational curriculum needed for the mental well-being of artists and prospective performers.
The media are also working to curb the Werther effect. Guidelines on reporting suicides, adopted in 2013, urge media outlets to keep reports on suicides to a minimum and refrain from using the term "suicide." They are also asked not to glorify suicide or describe how people killed themselves. Suicide is paraphrased as "an extreme choice." Telephone numbers of consultation centers are written at the end of articles about suicide. Baek said media reports on suicide have drastically improved.
There is no shortcut for preventing people from taking their lives, but continual efforts will never be in vain.