Tragic incidents of suicide are difficult to discuss, but also are a reality that we must face as a society. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, what are the appropriate attitudes to approach it?
While passing by the freshmen dormitories in the northern section of campus with a group of friends, someone remarked, looking at a tree whose leaves had already fallen: Apparently someone had hung himself on the tree. The story was probably a facetious one, for the thin branches would probably not have allowed for such an act. But it somehow seemed representative of something. I mean, KAIST is one of the most competitive schools in an already hypercompetitive society.
It is not a secret that South Korea has one of the highest, if not the highest, suicide rates in the world. It can’t be pinpointed to a specific generation; it is the story of everyone, old and young, poor and rich, the famous and the ordinary. Many have blamed the fast-paced economic growth for these high rates. But never mind the cause; if society keeps on treating this issue in the way it is currently doing, it will only exacerbate, if not terribly worsen, the situation.
During my time at KAIST, a number of students decided to take their lives. Most of the news was spread through group chats, and people would react with shock and sadness. However, these stories were just stories we told among ourselves. I hoped that some kind of school representative would mention or at least reference such instances, for regardless of the cause and the purpose of the suicide, hadn’t the school lost one of its members? But no, stories had been carried to somewhere else, swiftly by the wind, to a place of singularity, tying them into a single fragment of memory. The social atmosphere of the modern age has a tendency to link information with numbers. From global exchange rates to national economic growth rates and individual income figures, in the case of our school, it is the rankings marked by some agencies that matter and the number of citations and publications that it cares about. The individuality and well-being of the members of the school have become abstracted — far more than necessary by the school — and lost priority in the picking line. And the number of students committing suicide is a bad dataset, better left out or cleaned up through other statistics.
The kind of suicide of non-sacrificial nature has long been treated as taboo in our society. Nowadays, people have become more comfortable, or even used to, speaking of suicide; the news has been tossed onto us, without even an attempt to employ empathy or explain or describe the thoughts and feelings of those afflicted. And we forget, and we are left to believe that a death through suicide is meaningless, for no one acts upon it. The student body, which is supposed to care for the welfare of the students, should at least act if the school does not act. It might be that the student would not like to be remembered. But the act of commemoration does not solely serve as an act of remembrance; it can also be a sign of farewell.
According to a recent poll done by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 63% of the people surveyed replied that they lied about the cause of death of their family members who had committed suicide and that 90% of those who had committed suicide had shown some form of a warning signal, but that only 21% had realized that it had been a serious one of real consequences.
Taking one’s life is not necessarily a bad choice. But the fact that this happens under such neglect, where the people who have psychological problems are unattended to, is an issue that shouldn’t be ignored. I believe that the school should take more action in a way that does not inhibit the free will of those seeking escape, but rather helps those who need a hand and embraces the sadness to show that we care.