Family members and friends of late SHINee singer Kim Jong-hyun cry as they carry out his coffin during his funeral at a hospital in Seoul on Dec. 21, 2017. The singer committed suicide three days earlier. (Photo: AFP)
Experts and Catholic groups in South Korea have called for more psychotherapy centers and counselors and urged the Church to promote counseling as part of pastoral care amid a rise in suicide rates.
“[Pastoral] counseling should be added to sacramental pastoral care,” said Father Matthew Hong Sung-nam, director of the Catholic Psycho-Spiritual Counseling Center of Seoul archdiocese.
He added that “the Church intervenes in people’s lives from birth to death and takes care of them. Similarly, pastoral centers of the Church should try to solve the problem.”
Pastoral counseling is a unique form of psychotherapy that uses spiritual resources as well as psychological understanding for healing and growth, according to the American Association of Pastoral Counseling. It is provided by certified pastoral counselors, who are not only mental health professionals but have also had in-depth religious and/or theological training.
"The demand for psychological support has increased remarkably"
According to a Covid-19 National Mental Health Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in August last year, the number of those admitting having suicidal thoughts had increased nearly threefold from 4.6 percent in 2019 to 12.7 percent in June 2022.
As a result, the demand for psychological support has increased remarkably.
On average, the number of monthly calls to a suicide prevention hotline (1393) more than doubled from 7,457 in 2019 to 15,395 in 2022. The number of users of the online psychological counseling platform also exceeded 1.5 million.
South Korea recorded a suicide rate of 26 per 100,000 people in 2021, up from 25.7 in 2020, the Economic Times reported.
Father Matthew ChoYoung-su, an official at the Good Neighbor Counseling Office of Chuncheon diocese pointed out that the positive image of the Church in Korea is a huge factor that contributes to the trust of the public in its counseling services.
“Trust is important in counseling, and Korean churches are positively recognized in society. So they have strengths in providing counseling pastoral care,” said Cho.
"People consider seeking mental health support as a weakness"
Cho said that the economic crisis caused by Covid-19, the Russia-Ukraine war, and social and political turmoil has created the need for a “neighbor who can help them [South Koreans] and stabilize their mind.”
However, Church officials cite a shortage of counseling centers and trained personnel as drawbacks in providing timely counseling to potential victims.
Pastoral counseling experts suggest setting up counseling centers with trained personnel at local churches to tackle the ever-increasing demand for counseling.
In South Korea, many people consider seeking mental health support as a weakness and taboo, which makes them unwilling to speak about the issue in public.
Official data shows that only 20 percent of South Koreans seek mental health care when they are depressed, and nearly 75 percent of South Korean elderly individuals feel that depression and other mental health problems are a sign of weakness.
In 2021, there were ten mental health care facilities operating in South Korea's Chungnam province, according to statista.com.
There is a total of 59 such institutions nationwide, a number that has not changed for over a decade now. Gangwon is the only province that has no active mental health institutions.
Father Mark Lee Geum-jae, director of the Pastoral Counseling Center of Jeonju diocese said that the Church needs to follow the footsteps of Jesus to reach out to people who badly need mental health support.
“Jesus was the most exemplary counselor who sympathized with, embraced, and accepted the people who always came to him, giving them healing and new opportunities,” the priest said.
This report is brought to you in partnership with the Catholic Times of Korea.