When Michael Park Geun-hwa found out that his son had schizophrenia, he felt hopeless. He didn't want to tell anyone, not even his siblings.
“I was afraid that my son was going to be stigmatized... People usually avoid mental patients, even though the patients don’t harm them,” he said.
In Korea, when people consult mental health practicioners or get a prescription from a mental hospital, it can result in various forms of discrimination. Patients might be refused private health insurance, can be barred from jobs in public office and cannot be a doctor, nurse, pilot or dietitian. Mental health patients cannot get a driver’s license.
Even though schizophrenia is one of the most common mental illnesses, Park had trouble finding help for his son.
His parish priest priest recommended St Andrews Neuropsychiatric Hospital, run by the Clerical Congregation of the Blessed Korean Martyrs.
St Andrews was established in 1990 as the first open mental hospital in the country. Its aim was to change social prejudices about mental illness.
“Mentally ill people in our society are somewhat similar to the early Korean martyrs in the 19th century," said Father Peter Lee Sang-yoon, director of the hospital. Early Korean Catholics fled from government persecution, forming their own villages.
"As a congregation following the spirituality of the martyrs, we should be the hospital that is seeking a change against social discrimination against the mentally ill," Lee said.
In recognition of the hospital's efforts, in 2006 it became the first hospital of its kind to receive an award from the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.
"We recognize the hospital’s contribution for the human rights of mentally ill patients while working in silence," the commission said.
According to the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service (HIRA), of the 58,049 patients admitted to Korea's 470 mental hospitals in 2009, 52.1 percent were schzophrenia patients.
St Andrews has 270 beds and has about 250 patients at any one time. With its 14 doctors and 145 staff, it has approximately 1.6 caregivers per patient. Meanwhile, according to HIRA, in the general mental health sector, 8,859 medical staff care for around 68,000 patients, a ratio of one staff member to 6.7 patients.
Unlike other facilities, at St Andrews patients are not locked in their rooms and can freely move around the hospital.
In modern society, mental illness is common, said Park Han-son, a psychiatrist at the hospital. He alleges that at least 30 percent of people are affected by some type of mental illness, such as obsessive compulsive disease, depression, panic disorder, or bipolar disorder.
“If we take alcohol and tobacco abuse into account, nearly 50 percent of ordinary people suffer from a mental illness,” Park said.
"Mental diseases are just targets of cure not the target of removal in society. But many people think that mentally ill people should be alienated from society. We should change those prejudices and discrimination against them," he said. Changing prejudices will also improve treatment.
“Many people do not accept mental diseases among their family members. So, the families do not bring patients to the hospital, and the condition grows worse.”
The hospital is now also conducting a series of lectures on mental health and human rights, offering the public practical information and raising awareness. “As mental disorders come from within people," Fr Lee said. "We need to cure them not only medically but also pastorally by respecting all the patients deep down in the heart.”
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