The Korea Herald


A closer look into Korea’s suicide statistics

New data reveals where the front lines are in the country's battle against suicide

By Lee Sun-young

Published : Dec. 26, 2023 - 16:26

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It is no longer news that South Korea has a high suicide rate.

With 25.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2022, the country topped the 38-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of suicide rates. This rate is more than double that of the OECD average of around 10-11 deaths per 100,000.

But under the headline numbers, when, where and how do most suicide attempts occur here?

A recently released set of data encompassing crucial information from first response records to emergency room visits and governmental death statistics, sheds some light on where the front lines of the country’s suicide crisis are.

Women, poisoning and in the home

The data, released by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, looks into all “deaths caused by external harm,” which includes deaths caused by external factors such as accidents, violence, suicide, poisoning or natural disasters.

Of the 26,148 such deaths that occurred in Korea in 2021, suicides accounted for nearly half of the cases at 13,352. And in the 10-49 age group, suicide's share of the deaths rises to over 70 percent.

These 13,352 suicides a year translate to 36.6 deaths per day -- one suicide every 39 minutes.

The Suicide Prevention Emergency Department Information System (SPEDIS), which tracks suicide-related visits to emergency rooms at 23 major hospitals across the country, offers a more detailed look at the people who take their own lives or attempt to do so.

It shows the number of women who attempt suicide is about 1.8 times that of men at 16,425 versus 9,109 for the year 2021.

Poisoning is by far the most common method, accounting for 80.7 percent of total suicides and suicide attempts. Some 80.5 percent of the self-poisoning cases involved overdoses of medicinal drugs, followed by ingestion of pesticides (9.3 percent) and inhalation of gases (7.8 percent). Of the three, ingesting pesticides was found to have the highest mortality rate at 18.6 percent.

Of all the methods of self-harm, drowning, suffocation and hanging had the highest fatality rate at 33.9 percent.

Further analysis revealed that emergency room visits for suicide or self-harm were concentrated between the hours of 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., with most of these incidents having occurred at home or in residential facilities.

‘Hazardous objects used for suicide'

Data on suicides, such as the aforementioned data set, form the foundation for national anti-suicide policy formulation.

One such example is the designation of “hazardous objects used for suicide” by the Ministry of Health and Welfare, in the Act on the Prevention of Suicide and the Creation of Culture of Respect for Life.

The list of hazardous objects used for suicide was first created in 2020 for the purpose of tighter management of items that are frequently used, or are likely to be used, as a means of suicide.

The initial list initially consisted of just two categories. They were materials used to induce carbon monoxide poisoning -- namely coal briquettes -- and pesticides. For decades, these two types have been the most frequently used means for self-harm here, likely due to their high toxicity and easy accessibility.

In January this year, the authorities added to the list prescription drugs such as Zolpidem sleeping pills.

More recently in December, sodium nitrite, a food preservative commonly found in sausage and other processed meats, has been newly designated a hazardous object, pushing the number of categories on the list to four.

Police data shows that the country has seen an increase in sodium nitrite-related suicides in recent years, from none in 2017 to 46 in 2021.

The list blocks the online sale and distribution of the white powdery substance, which can be lethal in doses as small as 4 to 6 grams. A violation can be punished with up to 2 years in prison and a fine of up to 20 million won ($15,344).

If you’re thinking about self-harm or suicide, contact the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s helpline on 1393, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Please request a translator for English-language services.