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Online ISSN: 1099-176X    Print ISSN: 1091-4358
The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics
Volume 17, Issue 4, 2014. Pages: 151-162
Published Online: 1 December 2014

Copyright © 2014 ICMPE.


 

Impact of Macro-Level Socio-Economic Factors on Rising Suicide Rates in South Korea: Panel-Data Analysis in East Asia

Jihyung Hong,1* and Martin Knapp2

1Ph.D., LSE Health and Social Care, London School of Economics, London, UK
2Ph.D., LSE Health and Social Care, London School of Economics, and King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, London, UK

* Correspondence to: Jihyung Hong, Ph.D., LSE health and social care, Houghton Street, London, WC2A 2AE, UK
Tel.: +44-20-7955 6238
Fax: +44-20-7955 6111
E-mail: jihyung.hong.kr@gmail.com

 Source of Funding: None declared.

Abstract

Our study set out to understand South Korea’s rising suicide rates in the context of other Asian countries (Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan), using both panel-data and country-specific time-series analyses (1980-2009). The macro-level variables considered were transformed to percentage changes or first differences due to their non-stationary properties over time. Despite similarities in geography and culture, the rising suicide trend was found to be unique to South Korea, especially for people aged 65 and over. Our results (panel-data model) generally pointed to a negative relationship between economic growth and suicide rates, particularly for working-aged people. Country-specific findings further suggested that reduced social integration and economic adversity (unemployment and economic downturn) might in part explain the atypical suicide trend in South Korea, especially for older people and middle-aged men, respectively. These findings highlight the need of different policy interventions for different age groups to curb suicides in South Korea.

 

Background: The rapid increase in suicide rates in South Korea, particularly in the aftermath of the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, compares with the declining suicide rates observed in most other OECD countries over the same period.

Aims of the Study: This study aimed to examine an array of macro-level societal factors that might have contributed to the rising suicide trend in South Korea.

Methods: We first investigated whether this trend was unique to South Korea, or ubiquitous across five Asian countries/areas that are geographically and culturally similar (South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan), using WHO mortality data and national statistics (1980-2009). Age-standardised suicide rates (per 100,000 population) were calculated for each gender and age group (15-24, 25-44, 45-64, and 65+) for each country. Both panel data and country-specific time-series analyses were employed to investigate the impact of economic change and social integration/regulation on suicide.

Results: Despite similarities in geography and culture, the rising trend of suicide rates was unique to South Korea. This atypical trend was most apparent for people aged 65 and over, which was in sharp contrast to the decreasing suicide trends observed in the other four Asian countries. The results of the panel data analyses generally pointed to a negative relationship between economic growth and suicide rates, particularly for working-aged people. The results of the time-series analyses further suggested that low levels of social integration, as indicated by rising divorce rates, may also have a role in rising suicide rates in South Korea, particularly for older people. Furthermore, the association between suicide rates and economic adversity (unemployment and economic downturn) was most salient among middle-aged men in South Korea.

Discussion and Limitations: Compared to four other East Asian countries/areas (Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan), South Korea has uniquely experienced a rising trend of suicide rates over the past three decades, particularly among older people. The findings highlight the differential associations between social changes and suicide rates at various stages over a person's life course. Low levels of social integration and economic adversity may in part explain the atypical suicide trend in South Korea, especially for older people and middle-aged men, respectively. Data constraints, however, limit the scope for explanation in light of the complex and multifactorial causes of suicide.

Implications for Health and Social Care Policies: Different age groups within the population require different policy interventions to curb the unprecedented rise in suicide rates in South Korea. Particularly for older people, there is a great need to strengthen methods of assisting family support as well as formulating models of social care that are financially-sustainable and culturally sensitive. More investment is also needed to strengthen labour market protection and/or expand social safety net for the unemployed.

Implications for Further Research: The link between social integration and suicide rates deserves further empirical investigation, so that mediating factors that are amenable to policy actions can be better identified.

Received 14 April 2014; accepted 9 September 2014

Copyright 2014 ICMPE