The recent Catholic Times gave front page coverage to the 16th Japanese and Korean Bishops' Conference, which met to discuss the serious problem of suicides in both countries.
Korea has one of the highest rates of suicides in the world, with a daily rate of 42 and increasing yearly; Japan, since 1998, has had over 30,000 yearly suicides. It is no longer a problem that either country can ignore.
During the conference meetings, the observation was made that because of Korea's development in the last 40 to 50 years many problems have arisen that took the West over 300 years to come to terms with. And as a result, the rapid change of the Korean culture brought to light many of the difficulties now being experienced by so many.
With such an abrupt change in cultural values, feeling confused was a common response of many, leading to stress, a weakening of the support systems, the breakdown of family life, the loss of a person's sense of self, and gradual erosion of the value of life itself. Especially disturbing has been the many incidents of women committing suicide and having serious mental problems.
A Korean speaker at the conference felt the large number of suicides in the two countries was a sure sign we are dealing with a pathological societal issue that until recently had been mostly considered solely a personality disorder and thus had not been addressed adequately by society. He wanted the citizens of both countries to become familiar with what is going on in society that is prompting so many to take their own lives. By being better informed, he believes we will be empowered to do something about it. He also felt that the Church and all religious organizations, because of the nature of their mission in society, has to be in the forefront of this movement to decrease the number of suicides.
A Japanese bishop made clear in his presentation that killing oneself in many cases is not a free act. We are beginning to realize that many are driven to kill themselves and are powerless, if help is not available, to prevent it. The Church is beginning to see that suicide is both a personal and a societal sickness, and that we have to be careful not to consider it just a sin.
We must make an attempt to understand what motivates the potential suicide, by reflecting on why they are lonely and feel alienated. When they come for counseling, we will not be of much help to them if we just lay down moral principles that say they should not think those thoughts. The primary effort must be made to uncover what has driven them to bring these thoughts to mind. And then be prepared to offer them a viable way of dealing with these thoughts. A way that is both practical and doable, given the difficult circumstances they find themselves in.