It can sometimes feel as if South Korea, overworked, overstressed and ever anxious, is on the verge of a national nervous breakdown, with a rising divorce rate, students who feel suffocated by academic pressures, a suicide rate among the highest in the world and a macho corporate culture that still encourages blackout drinking sessions after work. More than 30 South Koreans kill themselves every day, and the suicides of entertainers, politicians, athletes and business leaders have become almost commonplace. The recent suicides of four students and a professor at Korea’s leading university shocked the nation, and in recent weeks a TV baseball announcer, two professional soccer players, a university president and the former lead singer in a popular boy band killed themselves. And yet Koreans — while almost obsessively embracing Western innovations ranging from smartphones to the Internet to cosmetic surgery — have largely resisted Western psychotherapy for their growing anxieties, depression and stress. Talk-therapy modalities with psychiatrists, psychologists and other types of trained counselors are only slowly being accepted, according to mental health experts here. “Talking openly about emotional problems is still taboo,” said Dr. Kim Hyong-soo, a psychologist and professor at Chosun University in Kwangju. “With depression, the inclination for Koreans is to just bear with it and get over it,” he said. “If someone goes to a psychoanalyst, they know they’ll be stigmatized for the rest of their life. So they don’t go.” Mental health experts said many troubled South Koreans seek help from private psychiatric clinics (and pay their bills in cash) so their government-insurance records do not carry the stigma of a “Code F,” signifying someone who has received reimbursement for such care. Even when Koreans do seek out counseling, the learning curve can be steep. A prominent psychiatrist with a practice in Seoul, Jin-seng Park, said it was not uncommon for some new patients to come to his office, talk over a problem for 40 minutes and then be shocked when they’re presented with a bill.
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