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Death of baseball star reignites recurring problem

Outbreaks of copycat suicides plague South Korea

Catholic teenagers hold a suicide-prevention rally in Seoul Catholic teenagers hold a suicide-prevention rally in Seoul
  • Stephen Hong, Seoul
  • Korea
  • January 16, 2013
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Actress Choi Jin-sil appeared to be someone who "had it all," with a glittering career and a marriage to baseball star Cho Sung-min. But the glamor couple divorced in far from glamorous circumstances amid reports of domestic violence. Four years later, in 2008, Choi committed suicide.  

That was shocking enough, but there was worse to come.

In 2010, Choi’s brother followed the example of his sister and took his own life.

This provoked a rising stream of online abuse directed at Cho, a pitcher who played in the Japanese pro-league for the Yomiuri Giants for seven years until 2002, just two years before his ill-fated marriage fell apart.

Eventually, he cracked under the weight of accusations against the backdrop of a rapidly failing career. After a reported split with his girlfriend, Cho too committed suicide on January 6.

As the figures emerge, they show that both these deaths led to a spate of what have been deemed 'copycat suicides' in South Korea. 

Following Choi’s death in October 2008, police recorded 700 deaths above the norm in the following month, 70 percent more than statistical expectations.

After Cho’s death on January 6, a similar pattern has emerged.

Authorities have recorded 17 suicides in the cities of Incheon near Seoul and Busan in the south of the country attributed to the baseball star’s death.

One suicide note read: “I just want to kill myself like Cho.”

Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik has since scrambled for a suitable response.

On Friday, he said that the government would take “effective measures by analyzing the motives and patterns of recent suicides.”

South Korea holds the grisly record of the highest suicide rate among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the most developed countries in the world.

Official figures show some 15,000 South Koreans kill themselves every year.

The World Health Organization estimates that each suicide affects at least six other people, on average, but when two connected celebrities and one of their family members all kill themselves in a short space of time, experts consider the effects to be multiplied.

“Family members usually play a role in suppressing suicidal urges,” says psychiatrist Chung Won-yong.

But when one family member commits suicide, “the suppressive power loses its effectiveness and other family members are more likely to take their own lives,” he adds.

To what extent is this effect magnified over a larger population when it is a famous person committing suicide in a country which experiences blanket coverage of celebrity news, gossip and culture?

According to the government-run Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHSA), some 3.7 million South Koreans out of a population of 50 million have psychiatric disorders associated with a high risk of suicide.

KIHSA researcher Song Tae-min says that 28 percent of the population has suicidal ideas more than once in their lifetimes. And when celebrity suicides go viral online and in the media, some experts have suggested that these high-profile cases stimulate this suicidal tendency.

In 2004, the Journalists’ Association of Korea and the Korean Association for Suicide Prevention jointly prepared a reporting guideline following a spate of copycat suicides after a prominent businessman killed himself.

But the media’s enthusiasm for reporting high-profile suicides has hardly slowed, says Kim Da-hye, a coordinator at a lifeline Korea, an organization that supports bereaved families who have suffered a relative’s suicide.

Since Cho’s suicide this month, no family members of any of those who have followed suit in taking their lives have spoken to the media.

But they continue to suffer, says Kim, “reminded by the news coverage of a celebrity suicide.”

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