On Sunday, USA Today published an article detailing the epidemic of suicide that is gripping Japan. Unfortunately, like many stories on suicide, the article is thin on actual data to back this idea of an “epidemic.”
When crossing international boundaries, one has to understand different cultures’ takes on taboo topics. Suicide is one such topic, and one where culture has a significant impact on how it’s viewed. For instance, in Japan suicide has practically been raised to a virtue, where committing suicide is seen as the honorable thing to do when one’s life seems to be going wrong:
A suicide fad is sweeping Japan: Hundreds of Japanese have killed themselves this year by mixing ordinary household chemicals into a lethal cloud of poison gas that often injures others and forces the evacuation of entire apartment blocks.
The 517 self-inflicted deaths by hydrogen sulfide poisoning this year are part of a bigger, grimmer story: Nearly 34,000 Japanese killed themselves last year, according to the Japanese national police. That’s the second-highest toll ever in a country where the suicide rate is ninth highest in the world and more than double that of the USA, the World Health Organization says.
Honor or not, suicide is not the answer. An economic downturn takes your job? Guess what? An economic upswing is just around the corner and virtually everyone finds another job in time. Girlfriend or wife leaves you? That’s no reason to end your life when a million other women are out there waiting for you. Suicide is an immediate reaction to a momentary life question that will haunt your friends and family for a lifetime.
But the problem isn’t just in Japan. It plagues many Asian cultures, including the South Korean one, where things are far worse. South Korea has the unlucky distinction of having the highest suicide rate amongst developed countries: 24.7 deaths per 100,000 people.
The solution? Make people better appreciate the life they have now by sending them on a “fake funeral” of their own. The Financial Times has the story:
“Korea has ranked number one in many bad things such as suicide and divorce and cancer rates, so I wanted to run a programme for people to experience death,” says Ko Min-su, a 40-year-old former insurance agent who founded Korea Life Consulting, which offers fake funerals as a way to make people value life.
Korean corporations — from Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor to Kyobo Life Insurance and Mirae Asset Management — send their employees on Mr Ko’s courses regularly, partly to encourage them to question their priorities in life and partly as a suicide prevention measure.
People who experience the course first-hand find the experience terrifying and eye opening at the same time:
Yoon Soo-yung, a manager at the Cheonnam Educational Training Institute, who was considering sending her staff on the course, said the experience was terrifying. “I felt like I was suffocating. I cried a lot inside my coffin,” she told the FT. “I regretted so many things that I had done in my life and mistakes that I had made.”
While some experts are skeptical:
Some medical experts are less convinced of the value of such programmes as a suicide prevention measure. “I think treating the fundamental causes like depression and impulsive behaviour is more important and should come before such programmes,” says Chung Hong-jin, professor of neuropsychiatry at the Samsung Medical Centre in Seoul.
My take? The suicide issue is very different in these cultures and the rate is so high, creative techniques like this may hold some potential. The real test is conducting a simple study on the course, assessing participants’ thoughts and attitudes toward suicide before and after, with a random sample of people (those who work in high stress, competitive jobs, and those who do not). It would be a simple study to conduct and one that would show whether there’s more than anecdotal evidence to support the course’s use.
Sadly, the president of the company marketing the course appears to be more interested in expanding into additional markets rather than examining whether his course actually works.
I think such interventions, possibly categorized under the treatment techniques of “psychodrama” (an established field here in the U.S. and Europe, though not well understood or popularized), have potential. Death holds a terrifying mystery to many people. By experiencing first-hand the ceremonial rites associated with death, it may be enough to reach people on an emotional, irrational level as a response to irrational feelings of killing oneself.
It’s an intriguing concept and one I’d like to see the research done on. Because anything that helps change people’s minds about taking their own lives is something that should be more widely understood and disseminated.
Read the full USA Today article about Japanese suicide: Suicide epidemic grips Japan
Read the full Financial Times article: When death is a reminder to live or view the photo gallery, which takes you on an eery step-by-step tour of the fake funeral process