The Granite Tower
Mental Disorder: Mirror of Modern Society
Kim Hye Ri, Lee Yun Mi  |,
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승인 2016.04.08  17:50:43
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▲ Illustration of a brain. Provided by

Last winter, one of the most favored South Korean comedians all of a sudden declared that he would resign from all television programs; his reason was that he had been suffering from some type of anxiety disorder. Though the general public was taken aback by the unexpected leave, this happening is not solely a problem of a single individual. In fact, the number of people suffering from such mental disorders is increasing at a speed that cannot be overlooked.

It is not an exaggeration to refer to the modern society as an era of anxiety and fatigue. The contemporary world is overwhelmed with fast, fluctuating, uncertain, competitive, and therefore restless components. As a matter of fact, according to an epidemiologic study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), the yearly prevalence rate of mental illness, on average, has been about 10.2 percent of the whole population since 2011. This number is equal to an average of 3.68 million people diagnosed with a psychological disorder every year, a number all the worse because it is increasing day by day. “One out of every five people living in the contemporary world suffers from some kind of mental illness during their lives, regardless of the seriousness of the disease,” explained Dr. Ham Byung Joo (College of Medicine).

The situation of this rapid increase in the number of people with mental disorders is not to be denied, particularly in the case of South Korea. To be specific, the number of suicide deaths within this country added up to 13,836 people as of 2014, or a suicide rate of 27.3 people, which ranks number one out of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.“The situation has become highly serious within the country; in fact, it has been estimated that an average of 40 people commit suicide in a day, which adds up to about 20,000 people annually,” Dr. Ham added.

▲ Professor Ham Byung Joo. Photographed by Lee Hye Min.


Psychological Disorders: Solely the Problem of an Individual?

Some people argue that people who suffer from these mental diseases should discover the cause of their illness within themselves. Of course, it is true that the significance of individuals themselves should not be denied with regards to the factors that result in psychological disorders. This is because it has been proven that even little efforts of individuals themselves are highly effective in preventing, as well as curing these illnesses, and genetic factors do predispose some people to certain types of mental disorders.

To elaborate upon this point, according to a study conducted by Time in February 2014, the fundamental peace of the human mind can easily be discovered when people put much effort into understanding their identity and their talents. The conductors called this discovery within oneself as Mindful Revolution, a psychological practice of finding and realizing one’s potential.

Along the same line, positive thinking activates the left dorsal prefrontal cortex. This cortex is the part of the brain that manages people’s emotions, especially those related to euphoria, happiness, and satisfaction. The same research has proven that through about seven to eight weeks of meditation and positive thinking, the structure of this prefrontal cortex alters, which leads to a decrease in the level of anxiety and stress within an individual.

In addition, it has been proven that there exist a few kinds of hereditary psychological disorders, such as bipolar disorders, obsessive compulsive neurosis, and schizophrenia. “The main causes with regards to these types of diseases lie on individuals themselves, since around 70 to 80 percent of the risk for these diseases is due to genetic factors,” explained Ham. Here, observing from this percentage, genetic reasons behind psychological illnesses should also not be passed unnoticed.


Any Social Causes to be Blamed?

Despite this, many people have also been doubtful about whether the patient with a mental disorder can solely be blamed for his or her illness; rather, they have reasonably argued that social causes are the fundamental element that led to this undeniably rapid increase in psychological diseases. “The occurrence of a disease, however, cannot solely be blamed upon hereditary reasons, since social factors aggravate, intensify, and even create a notable number of disease incidences,” asserted Ham.

“Observing from my experiences of treating the patients, I have noticed an explicit differentiation with concerns to the aspects of mental disorders, depending on the situation and bearings of that time period,”said Ham. To speak of South Korea, in particular, there exist two predominant social factors as follows: first is social prejudice and barriers upon patients who suffer from mental illnesses, and second, the socio-structural cause that leads to anger and pessimism in its people.


Antipathy Toward Mental Disorders: Putting the Cart Before the Horse

To start with, the fact that Korean society places severe social stigma on people who suffer from, or had been suffering from psychological disorders is a critical, even fatal cause that leads to the increase of the diseases within modern society. Due to this precise reason, Dr. Ham affirmed that one third of the patients diagnosed with mental illness in this country decide upon receiving adequate medical treatment.
“Compared to Australia, for instance, the number of South Koreans afflicted with any type of mental disorder is twice as great as that of Australia,” said Dr. Ham. “On the other side of the coin, however, the prescription rate of antidepressants is ten times lower in Korea,” he added. As a matter of fact, South Korea ranked in the lowest category regarding the medication rate with antidepressants relative to its population, clearly proving that the treatment measures are strikingly low.
Not only that, but within South Korean society, unfavorable dispositions and disadvantages put burden on those who have undergone treatment for a mental disorder. To explain, a significant number of corporations put penalties on applicants with records of receiving medical treatments in psychiatric clinics. In addition, these patients are denied of insurance for three years when proven to suffer from psychological disorders. “It is definitely a shameful irony that people refuse to receive cure for their illness, just to take out an insurance policy on their lives,” Dr. Ham worriedly added.
Socio-structural Causes: Invisible, yet Immensely Influential 
On a broader scale, the current society, frequently described as the age of limitless competition and excessive capitalism, has been contended to spread pessimism and self-mockery, and thereby arising as the authentic cause of this upsurge in mental illnesses.“It is a matter of fact that the modern society is bulging with instability, whether it is with relation to economic reasons such as unemployment, or a matter of social relations within an individual’s family, friends, or fellow employees,” claimed Professor Kim Jinyoung (Department of Sociology).

Modern society is faced with countless social and economic disputes, all the way from poverty issues and the ceaseless gap between the rich and the poor, to gender and race discrimination. The status quo is particularly critical within South Korea; struck with severe economic crisis, the unemployment rate is now 10.2 percent, the highest rate since the year 2000. These social dilemmas considered, South Korea has been questioned on the fundamental social structure of its current society as well.

“Of course, due to the fact that South Korea had undergone enormous economic success in such a short period of time, it is true that the rate of people living in absolute poverty is profoundly low,” explained Kim. “On the other hand, however, the economic growth has occurred in such a form that concentrated wealth on a small number of the privileged people. This has increased the sense of comparative deprivation, which in turn, is striking a blow on people’s mental well-being,” he said.

Adding on, the current economic crisis within the country has brought about hopelessness and psychological pessimism in its people, especially those in the lower ranks of the socio-economic status. “Had the aggregation of economic as well as social inequality and bipolarization been framed on a fair and justifiable scale, the situation would not have been this severe,” Kim said. The crucial problem, however, lies in the fact that in recent times, a considerable amount of disparity resides from the fundamentally discriminatory social structure itself.
▲ Professor Kim Jinyeong. Photographed by Lee Hye Min.
Hell Joseon and the Spoon Theory: How Severe is it?
In a similar way, numerous neologisms have also been coined in Korea, most satirizing the depressing socio-economic stance of the young generation which, in their eyes, seem to show no signs of improvement at all. To be specific, the social structural problems have become so severe that newly-coined phrases have come to the fore, including the terms Hell Joseon and the Spoon Theory.

The Spoon Theory, a newly-coined phrase utilized to explain the South Korean fad of classifying the modern-day socio-economic strata within this society, is an explicit example of the burlesque neologism, accompanying the rapid increase in pessimistic attitudes among its citizens. Coined from the Anglo-American idiom “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” the spoon theory asserts that the gap between the rich and the poor has severely widened, to the extent that the classification of social status on the basis of wealth and income is feudal, and tantamount to entering hell; put short, Hell Joseon.

To explain further, the Spoon Theory categorizes the South Koreans into four main classes; first are the golden spoons, people born from prestigious and affluent families, and therefore preoccupying the most dominant and prominent position within the structure of competition in the free market system. Next are the silver spoons, which are not as wealthy as the golden ones, but still much better off compared to the average public. Then come the bronze spoons, alluding to people from the average, common background. Last are the dirt spoons; those whose parents are unable to provide any significant financial benefits, and are forced to confront every hardship and suffering on their own.
From a Golden Spoon to a Dirt Spoon
To explain further, the Spoon Theory categorizes the South Koreans into four main classes; first are the golden spoons, people born from prestigious and affluent families, and therefore preoccupying the most dominant and prominent position within the structure of competition in the free market system. Next are the silver spoons, which are not as wealthy as the golden ones, but still much better off compared to the average public. Then come the bronze spoons, alluding to people from the average, common background. Last are the dirt spoons; those whose parents are unable to provide any significant financial benefits, and are forced to confront every hardship and suffering on their own.

Here, the main emphasis is placed on the lucid distinction between the golden spoons and the dirt spoons, or in other words, the growing distinction between the rich and the poor from birth. This structure seems even more ironic within this nation, infamous for its excessive competition in every aspect. To put it another way, the Spoon Theory sheds light on the fact that the younger generation of South Korea is, ironically, forced through this vicious competitive system out of no reason at all, since advancement within this market system is hopelessly impossible.

Observing these social phenomena, it is clearly identifiable that the factors of psychological disorders do not solely lie within the patients themselves. Rather, the society that hinders anger and pessimistic behavior in the overall public is one of the crucial causes. Here, the most common kinds of psychological disorders are depression, obsessive compulsive neurosis, and anger control disorder.
Depression: Sensation of Solitude Within a Crowded World
One of the most common psychological illnesses is depression, which is a type of a mood disorder that results in a state of low mood and aversion to any kind of activities. “While some may refer to the term solely as downswings in one’s mood to life struggles and setbacks, depression precisely differs from mere ups and downs in feelings,” Ham said. In fact, according to Dr. Ham, in medical terms, a patient is diagnosed with depression when he or she suffers from severe cases of gloomy mood for a prolonged period of time, and when that feeling engulfs the everyday life of the individual.

The symptoms and signs of depression vary from one person to another; however, there exist a number of indicators that hint at its possibility. To explain further, a victim of depression shows sudden and abrupt changes both physically and mentally. In terms of physical variation, a probable patient undergoes significant weight loss or weight gain; normally a change of more than five percent of one’s body weight within a month. They also experience changes in sleep patterns, including insomnia, especially waking up in the early hours of the morning, and hypersomnia, or in other words, oversleeping.

Mental alterations with regards to symptoms of depression include feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. To be specific, people suffering from this disease generally confess that they sense a bleak outlook, where nothing could ever get better. In other words, they acknowledge no hope that their situation would improve from there on. Another common sign is loss of interest in daily activities; they lose the ability to feel joy and pleasure, thereby leading to a decline in interest concerning their former hobbies, pastimes, social activities, and sex. “For some, most often in the case of the older generations within South Korea, depression appears through physical symptoms, such as unreasonable aches or anger, as well as indigestion problems,” Dr. Ham added.
▲ Depression. Provided by
Depression: Why So Serious?
As common as depression may seem in modern society, it should be acknowledged that the disease is highly fatal, and thereby should be carefully treated. This is especially crucial due to the fact that this illness is the most influential factor that leads to increases in suicides. Symptoms of depression, such as deep despair and hopelessness, lead patients to believe that suicide might just be the only way to escape and ease the pain that had so harshly been chocking them all along.
Some of the common factors of depression include prolonged existence of stresses, whether they be mild or severe. These stresses include frequent feelings of loneliness, lack of social support, alcohol or drug abuse, unemployment or underemployment, and financial strains. To add on, personal issues, such as recent stressful life experiences, family history of depression, marital or relationship problems, early childhood trauma or abuse, health problems and chronic pain also play as prevailing causes.
“In Korea, a typical patient suffering from depression is the middle-aged women, especially those who have excessively dedicated themselves to their children, caring less for the well-being of themselves,” said Dr. Ham. To be specific, due to the social phenomenon of parents sacrificing their lives too much for their children, the parents go through sentiments of vacantness when their child grows up and no longer requires their help.
The remedies for curing depression consist of mainly two methods, which are drug treatments and psychical cures. “Here, if the symptoms of the disease are quite moderate, it may as well be recovered completely only through counseling and psychotherapies. When the state of the patient becomes much more severe, it is necessary that he or she be simultaneously treated with medication,” Dr. Ham explained. He also added that regular exercise and workouts are highly effective in preventing depression, since doing so would relieve stress, as well as activating the function of the brain which may have been deteriorated from excessive anxiety.
▲ Obsessive Compulsive Neurosis. Provided by
Obsessive Compulsive Neurosis: Anxiety Reflected in Behaviors
People diagnosed with obsessive compulsive neurosis (OCN) go through repeated, unintended thoughts and acts of compulsion. Behaviors such as overly frequent hand washing, counting, checking, and cleaning can be the implications of OCN. “One of my colleagues always had to close every door three times each. He had to make sure that it was completely locked or closed,” Dr. Ham remarked. “People who suffer from OCN want to check something constantly because they are anxious. They spend significant amounts of time checking if the door is closed properly, or if they had counted the numbers correctly,” he added.
The number of patients diagnosed with OCN is less than the number of those with depression, but OCN is much more difficult to cure. This is because the impact that OCN has on the brain nerves is much more significant than depression. Regardless of the patient’s will to stop the compulsive behavior, it is hard to resist and the patient will be more stressed by the pressure. Although mainly the disorder is triggered by a biological factor, genes, what worsens the ailment is a social factor, the stress that comes from their lives. The symptoms are likely to aggravate if the patient gets stressed, and it is seriously problematic since efficiency is harmed in his daily life.
Getting rid of obsession from the patient’s mind may be much more laborious than depression, but what is important is that it is possible for the patients to be cured completely. “The treatment would mainly consist of medication since the disorder is mostly related to biology, and in order to prevent OCN, people should learn their ways to manage stress well,” Dr. Ham suggested. In addition to medication, another method the patient can work on is Exposure and Response Prevention. By making the patient exposed to such anxious circumstances and banning the compulsive behavior for a designated amount of time, the patient learns the anxiety can lessen without compulsion. With continuous medication and the endeavors of the patient, OCN is surely a curable disorder.
Anger Control Disorder: Time Bomb in Our Minds
Anger is one of the fundamental emotions that humans go through. A desirable reaction to anger is to retrieve inner peace without harming others or oneself. Anger Control Disorder keeps people from reacting decently toward the feeling of madness. Fury erupts out of nowhere, and it drives people to act in two different ways. The impulsive type of anger control disorder causes the patient to act furiously occasionally, and the habitual type of patients are likely to think that expressing anger in a violent way is effective, which increases the frequency of such behavior.
Anger Control Disorder, without any official medical term, is prevalent in the age group of fourteen to nineteen. “The disorder usually is caused by conflicts with their mothers. In Korean society, mothers are overly eager to provide the best education for their children since they believe that they are the ones closest to their children. They make the students go to excessive academies and always be ahead of other students,” Dr. Ham pointed out. “Society forces mothers to become the villains in the family who harshly pressure their children to study. Teenagers feel stressed and it develops into anger, and the fury is directed toward their moms. A lot of students act violently, yell at their mothers or even hit them.”
There is a similar type of mental illness called Hwabyeong. It only exists in Korea, and is triggered by the nation’s cultural background. Hwa means anger in Korean, and Byeong means illness. The term stands for the mental illness caused by anger that cannot be relieved and thus that is accumulated in mind. “Hwabyeong mostly is diagnosed in Korean women,” Dr. Ham pointed out. “In the past, Korean women had to suffer from severe patriarchal system. After they got married, the problem got worse usually because of the maltreatment from their mothers-in-law. According to patriarchal conception, the new bride ranked the bottom in the family. They could not resist or protest against their mother-in-law’s ruthless persecution.”
The stress and anger would stay inside the heart for a long time, and the outcome appeared physically. The new brides were not allowed to complain about what the elderly did or said in the past, and such cultural factors caused mental illness in Korean women. The cure for Hwabyeong would be similar according to Dr. Ham, prescription of antidepressants and counseling. “Hwabyeong might have become one of the major illnesses in Korea, but thanks to the changing atmosphere of the society, the number of patients diagnosed with Hwabyeong is on the decrease. Actually, there are virtually no new brides that go through oppression of their mothers-in-law. It happens vice versa these days.” Ham commented.
According to Dr. Ham, antidepressants are prescribed to those who suffer from anger controlling disorder. It is effective for alleviating the symptoms of not only depression but also excessive anger. Other than medication, it is vital that the patient realizes the problem inside oneself and finds methods that can help ameliorate fury inside one’s heart. One of the viable solutions is to exercise regularly and maintain healthy diet. It might seem like a way to improve physical health, but it actually will improve mental health too since biorhythm is closely linked to the brain.
▲ Anger Control Disorder. Provided by
Social Barriers Patients Go Through
As mentioned above, societal problems brought about fatigue and pessimism, and they resulted in the rise of mental disorders. Thus, the prevention and solution to the problems of the society should be taken into serious consideration, In order to prevent further ramifications of anger and pessimism that are prevalent in Korea, the fundamental method is to ameliorate conflicts that generate from social structure. In addition to preventing, endeavoring to solve the current situation is also crucial.
Koreans tend to have prejudice toward or put a stigma on people who had or have mental illness. Such a point of view makes people fear visiting psychiatrists and being provided with proper treatment. Apparently, such a perspective should change through education. “Psychologists have made a lot of effort to solve the problem. Education, publicizing, and the press are the three important keywords to the solution. Things are improving in Korea, but we still have a long way to go. Raising people’s awareness regarding mental disorder is the most fundamental quest,” Dr. Ham

Speaking of the reality of mental treatment, many people find it a burden to visit a clinic because of the expense. In fact, according to Dr. Ham, the medical fee is not a significant burden. The problem in reality is that psychiatric patients among beneficiaries of Medical Care Assistant Act (MCAA) are being discriminated against. The financial support regarding psychological treatment is substantially insufficient, which makes it hard for them to get medical care in university hospitals. “The poorer people are, the more likely they are to be diagnosed with mental disorders,” Ham commented. “The problem is that they cannot be provided with abundant monetary support from the government due to the increasing number of patients. This leads to a vicious cycle.”

Steps Can Be Taken for Betterment
Despite the pessimism that seems to encroach on our society, we can still endeavor to improve the situation. In a macroscopic perspective, the overall inequality among citizens should be diminished. “The problems of excessive economic inequality and unfair societal structure that foster discrimination against academic background and temporary workers need immediate solving. Employment stabilization should be realized through social welfare such as unemployment insurance,” Professor Kim suggested. “Especially, financial support for low-income households, single parent families, and senior citizens needs expansion. The government should play its role as a safety net for the underdogs.”

Not only society, but individuals can make efforts in order to break from fatigue and pessimism. They should bear in mind that they should not be fettered by standardized values. “Rather than comparing themselves with others, people should pay more attention to themselves They should build their own field of interest by trying out activities that they are genuinely interested in and can acquire satisfaction from. Also, balancing pluralistic values is vital,” Professor Kim emphasized. “Whenever people feel they need help, they should pluck up their courage to speak up about the problem and ask friends and experts for aid.”

With exertion of both society and individuals, dark clouds that go by the name of fatigue and pessimism can be skimmed off, paving the way for the bright future. Policies that support the underdogs combined with individuals’ selfencouragement will surely shed light on betterment of the society.


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