The roster of recent celebrity suicides in Korea is getting longer and longer, with Lee Eun-joo
, U;Nee, Jeong Da-bin
, Ahn Jae-hwan
, Choi Jin-sil
, Choi Jin-young and now Park Yong-ha
killing themselves since 2005. The numbers swell if actors or actresses who were either unknown when they took their lives or rose to fame only by committing suicide are included.
Although there are no accurate statistics, Korean celebrities seem more prone to suicide than stars in the U.S., Europe or Japan. They experience the same pressures as their counterparts overseas in terms of the fickleness of fame and irregular lifestyles. So what is it that drives them so often to take their own lives?
◆ Suicide Capital of the World
For one thing, Korea as a whole has the world's highest suicide rate. For every 100,000 Koreans, 21.5 commit suicide, as against the OECD average of 11.1. Experts say celebrity suicides can provide insight into why Koreans tend to be more prone to taking their own lives.
"Koreans tend to form their sense of identity through how they are perceived by others and may give up and make drastic choices when they're no longer able to show their best side to others", said Hwang Sang-min, a psychologist at Yonsei University. "And that tendency is stronger among celebrities, whose livelihood depends on their popularity".
◆ Lack of Counseling Programs
"Three years ago, a singer employed by our agency showed signs of depression, refusing to leave home because of unfounded rumors circulating on the Internet, but was unable to get psychiatric help for fear that it would cause more rumors that he was seeing a shrink", the CEO of an entertainment agency said. Seeking psychiatric help is becoming more common among ordinary Koreans, but among celebrities it is still taboo.
Large entertainment agencies in the U.S. and Japan hire professional counselors and regularly check the psychological health of their high-profile clients. Compounding the pressure on celebrities is the Internet, where every detail of their private lives is fodder for gossip or malicious comments. "I realized that celebrities these days have to watch out for so many things", said one top actress whose passing comment at a ceremony spread through the Internet and caused a major scandal.
"The fact that Korea is one of the world's most wired countries is a source of tremendous pressure for Korean celebrities", said Kang Tae-kyu, director of agency Music Farm. "A bigger problem is that talent agencies are operating like they did during the 1990s even though the environment has changed radically".
◆ Copy-Cat Suicides
Some experts cite copy-cat behavior as a reason behind increasing suicides among celebrities. Following the suicide of actress Lee Eun-joo
in 2005, the rate of suicides among show-biz people increased markedly. But an even bigger problem is the impact celebrity suicides have on ordinary people.
"When famous people commit suicide, people who used to look up to them feel like they have no reason to live, since those who they considered better resorted to taking their own lives", said Oh Kang-seob, a psychiatrist at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital. "Such thinking spreads and actually raises the suicide rate. That is why celebrity suicides are even more worrisome".