Go to contents

Low Awareness of Mental Disease in Korea

Posted March. 09, 2007 05:41,   


Mr. Hong (Age 68, Daegu), a dementia patient, called a shaman to his house to perform an exorcism last August. The reason he did so was because he was hearing the voices of his parents who had passed away long ago, and saw visions of his daughter hanging upside down on the wall. One day he perceived his wife, who was nursing him, as a devil trying to harm him, and made a big commotion, after which he momentarily came to his senses and asked his wife for an exorcism.

The exorcism, which cost several million won, was of no use. Later, at a university hospital, Mr. Hong was diagnosed with dementia caused by hydrocephalus, which is caused when water fills up in the brain, and after receiving surgery, his condition improved.

Hong and his family spent millions of won on an exorcism because they were not aware of his mental disease.

The number of mental patients in Korea is around five million (based on a research conducted in 2001), but there are still a considerable number of people like Hong who do not visit a psychiatry hospital at the early stages of their disease. In such circumstances, as the recent wave of suicides has shown, Korean society finds it hard to free itself from the social loss and shock of mental disease.

In the hopes of making a healthier society, this newspaper and the Korean Neuro-Psychiatric Association conducted a mental health study of the public, the first of its kind in Korea.

In March, a survey was conducted on 303 adults aged in their twenties and above who attended a health lecture at five university hospitals in Seoul and the metropolitan area. The results showed that six out of ten people were ‘mental health ignorant,’ having little knowledge on mental health.

In response to the 10 questions asking about types and causes of mental disease, and ways to deal with them, 57.6% of the participants received a failing grade of lower than 40 out of 100 points. Only 5.6% of the participants scored over 70 points, which indicates that the person is well aware of mental health; there was not a single person who answered all questions correctly.

Those in their twenties (score average: 58.8 points) knew the most about mental health, followed by those in their thirties (average: 48.7 points), forties (average: 42.36 points) and fifties (average: 35.39 points), which showed that the level of awareness fell as the ages went up.

46.4% of the participants answered that depression was a disease that occurs when one is weak-hearted, and 76.2% answered that it is impossible to completely cure dementia, which is incorrect.

For these reasons, many mental patients visit an internal department or emergency room complaining, “I feel heavy in the chest” or “I find it hard to breathe,” and only later visit a psychiatry hospital. According to the Neuro-Psychiatric Association, only 5-30% of Korean mental patients visit a psychiatrist. If a mental patient is not attended to, the brain structure itself may be damaged, which makes it difficult to treat later on, but when dealt with in its early stages, further damage can be prevented and there are higher chances of completely curing the illness.

Professor Ryu Sung-gon of Kangdong Sacred Heart Hospital’s neuropsychiatry department said, “This survey showed that the percentage of correct answers on questions regarding the causes and treatment of the disease was extremely low, which suggests that there is a problem in the way Koreans perceive mental illness.”

An authority on mental health, Professor Anthony Jorm of the psychology department at Melbourne University in Australia, said in an e-mail interview with this newspaper, “Most people know that they must receive treatment for heart disease or cancer, and they know that to avoid the disease, they must watch what they eat and do exercise.” He added, “In a society where people do not want to reveal their mental illness, the mental illness may become worse because they are unable to receive the help of a specialist.”

artemes@donga.com likeday@donga.com