South Korea’s Elderly Suicide Rate Declines and New Hope Begins

Last Updated: July 11, 2024By

Efforts to reduce the elderly suicide rate in South Korea, which ranks first in the world among OECD countries

South Korea has long had one of the highest suicide rates among OECD countries, and suicide among the elderly has been a serious social problem. However, in recent years, the country has seen a positive change in its suicide rate through various efforts. In this article, we’ll discuss the factors that have contributed to the decline in the elderly suicide rate.


Causes and Solutions to the Elderly Suicide Rate in Korea

High elderly suicide rate amidst rapid aging

According to Statistics Korea, by 2025, 20.6% of South Korea’s population is expected to be aged 65 and older. This means that South Korea will become an “ultra-elderly society,” with one in five citizens being elderly. However, despite the rapid aging rate, indicators related to the elderly are not improving. Among them, the elderly suicide rate remains the highest among OECD countries, with about 3,000 elderly people making the extreme choice every year. This is a serious social problem that Korean society cannot afford to ignore.

In 2020, 3392 elderly people aged 65 and over made extreme choices. Although the suicide rate (number of extreme choices per 100,000 people) has been decreasing over the past five years, it is still high compared to other countries. South Korea’s suicide rate for older adults is 33.7 (per 100,000) in their 60s, 46.2 in their 70s, and 67.4 in their 80s and older, which is much higher than the OECD average (15.2 in their 60s, 16.4 in their 70s, and 21.5 in their 80s and older), and significantly higher than the next highest countries, Lithuania (29.8 in their 60s) and Slovenia (35.2 in their 70s and 58 in their 80s and older).

Economic hardship and social isolation among the elderly

One of the main reasons for the high suicide rate among older adults is economic hardship. Many older adults struggle to make ends meet in retirement. This is especially true for seniors who live alone and often lack access to basic benefits. Other factors contributing to the high rate of suicide among seniors include health issues, disconnection from family, and social isolation. Due to physical and mental health issues, older adults suffer from depression and anxiety, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Depression and isolation due to various changes

Another reason for the high suicide rate among older adults is the many changes they face in old age. Changes in family structure, loss of social roles after retirement, death of a spouse, fear of death, declining physical capabilities, and declining economic power combine to create feelings of depression, loneliness, isolation, and self-blame. If these feelings are not addressed, people become demotivated and lose their reason to live.

The advent of an ultra-elderly society

According to Statistics Korea, the proportion of elderly people in South Korea is expected to increase to 20.6% in 2025, 30.1% in 2035, and 40.1% in 2050. By the time the current 30s and 40s become the elderly population, two out of five Koreans will be elderly. Therefore, everyone in society, regardless of age, should be concerned about the issue of elderly suicide.

The role of the state and other bystanders and social concern

The role of those around them

The best thing people around them can do for the elderly is to “talk.” Even if it’s not a deep conversation, it’s important to show interest by asking what they ate, how they’re feeling, what problems they’re having, etc. If there is a problem, rather than just listening, you should discuss alternatives together and, if necessary, persuade them to find a solution.

The senior’s own efforts

Older adults themselves need to find meaning in their lives by freeing themselves from negative emotions and thoughts. It’s important not to beat themselves up or fall into depression, and to socialize with those around them. Reach out when you need help, and older people should also try to be respectful and understanding of others and younger people.

The importance of economic support

One of the main reasons for the decrease in suicide rates among the elderly is the expansion of economic support from the government. The basic pension system and public works projects, which were launched in 2014, have contributed to alleviating many of the economic difficulties of the elderly. The basic pension provides direct cash assistance to low-income elderly people, which is an important source of livelihood for many elderly people. In addition to the basic pension, various public works programs help the elderly gain economic independence. These programs help the elderly restore their self-esteem through economic activity and break social isolation. As economic support has expanded, the suicide rate among the elderly has decreased significantly.

Changes in suicide rates by age group

Suicide rates in South Korea vary greatly by age group. While the suicide rate for the overall population is 25.2 per 100,000, the rate increases sharply with age, with the suicide rate for those aged 80 and older at 117 per 100,000, which is attributed to economic hardship and health issues. As recently as the early 2010s, the suicide rate for people aged 75 and over was 160, but has recently been halved.

Suicide prevention policies

The government is promoting various policies to reduce the suicide rate. The Ministry of Health and Welfare aims to reduce the suicide rate by 30% by 2021 through the Basic Plan for Suicide Prevention, and is running various prevention programs to achieve this. In addition, it is also strengthening mental health services and establishing community-based suicide prevention networks.

Social awareness and culture change

Suicide is more than just an economic issue; social and cultural factors also play a big role. Korea has traditionally been a family-oriented society, but in recent decades, changes in the family support system have led to the elderly becoming socially isolated. To address this, the government and private sector are strengthening various social support programs.

Seasonal changes in suicide rates

Suicide rates also vary greatly by season. While many people assume that suicide rates will be higher in the winter months, they are actually highest in the spring. This can be explained by the phenomenon that depression worsens during the winter months, leading to increased suicidal thoughts as they are stimulated in the spring. Increased activity along with increased sunshine in spring often leads to increased psychological anxiety, so it’s important to work to mitigate the psychological impact of the seasonal change. In this regard, suicide prevention campaigns and seasonal mental health care programs need to be strengthened.

Suicide rate comparison with Lithuania

The suicide rate in South Korea is at a high level alongside Lithuania. As of 2020, the suicide rate in South Korea was 24 per 100,000 people, which is the highest among OECD countries, along with Lithuania. However, the suicide rate in South Korea has been gradually decreasing in recent years, while Lithuania still has a high suicide rate.

South Korea’s challenges and efforts going forward

The decline in the elderly suicide rate is a result of increased economic support from the government, changing social perceptions, and various suicide prevention policies. However, many challenges still remain and require continued attention and effort. Through these efforts, Korean society will be able to move away from the disgrace of being ranked first in the OECD and become a society that provides a better quality of life.

For more data and statistics, you can refer to the 2023 Suicide Survey Report by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korea Foundation for Respect for Life and Hope. Korea is making continuous efforts to reduce the suicide rate. The problem of suicide among the elderly should be approached as a social issue, not just an individual problem, and should be addressed by society as a whole. Through a variety of approaches, including economic support, strengthening mental health services, and changing social perceptions, South Korea is gradually reducing its suicide rate, and these efforts must continue.

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