Depression Army Goes to Korea: A Report
Written By Sun Yoon
Hello DA followers! My name is Sun and I am a first year graduate student in Clinical Psychology at the University of South Florida (USF). I was born and raised in South Korea, and moved to Tampa, Florida to study ‘depression’ at the University of South Florida last year. Last winter vacation, I got an opportunity to interview Koreans about their thoughts about depression. Their responses gave me insight on Korea’s enormous need for mental health awareness efforts and I would like to share the responses here.
I collected South Korean’s thoughts and feelings about depression through an online survey and an in-person interview. Of the forty-five respondents (30 females) who participated in the online survey most participants were in their 20s or 30s. In addition, I interviewed four Korean people in person. All of them were females in their 20’s: Mi-rae (female, 27), Yejin (female, 28), Soi (female, 28), Jeong-eun (female, 25). I am grateful for their time and consideration for this survey and interview.
What Do Koreans Associate with Depression?
Firstly, participants were asked to share any words, thoughts, or feelings about ‘depression’ or ‘a depressive disorder’. The most frequent response was ‘sadness’, followed by ‘lethargy’ or ‘lack of motivation ’, ‘death’ or ‘suicide’, and ‘darkness’. There were many different responses; all of them were negative except for blue (color). The color blue was an interesting response because it does not have to do with depression in terms of its meaning in Korean, although it has to do with depression in English. Another interesting response was ‘gloomy weather’. Four people mentioned words related to gloomy weather such as grey skies, rainy days or cloudiness. Common responses are presented in Figure 1.
Figure 1. The words, thoughts or feelings about 'depression' or 'a depressive disorder'
How Do Koreans Explain Depression?
Then, respondents were asked why they think people develop a depressive disorder. The most frequent response was ‘environmental factors’ such as traumatic events or a series of uncontrollable situations. The second most frequent response was ‘negative cognitive styles’; followed by the interaction between ‘environmental factors’ and ‘personality’. It appears that approximately half of respondents thought that depression comes with a situation which is beyond a person’s ability to embrace or control. In addition, ‘mental weakness’ was reported more frequently than ‘stress’. Only two respondents thought that depression has to do with ‘hormonal problems’. The responses were also presented in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The reasons for a depressive disorder
In addition, two interviewees, Mi-rae and Yejin, said that ‘environmental factors’, such a traumatic situations, are more critical in developing depression, relative to ‘personality factors’. Mi-rae said, ‘I believe that everyone can become depressed. Even a person with a positive thinking style can develop a depressive disorder when an uncontrollable situation occurs.’ Yejin also said, “I don’t believe that depression is a brain disorder. Normal people can have a depressive disorder and they don’t need to change brains to deal with depression”.
Why Is Depression a Problem in Korea?
I asked the four Korean interviewees their thoughts on the major reasons for depression in Korea. The most common response was ‘Yeo-yu’, which roughly translates to ‘a lack of composure in mind’ in Korean, followed by ‘the tendency of dismissing individuals’ agony’.
‘Yeo-yu’: Interviewees said Korean people do not have composure in their mind. People are always rushing somewhere, and financially many people are not satisfied with their lives. There are simply too many educated people compared to the number of high-paying jobs. This is partially because of Korean history. After the Korean War ended in 1953, there was literally nothing for Korean people to use to restore the country except for human resources. To rebuild the country, Korea has been placing high values on education and emphasizing people’s sacrifice for society. Due to these efforts, Korea was able to rapidly restore the country; however this unprecedentedly rapid development resulted in side effects: lack of composure and unfair distribution of wealth. This seemed to lead to a lack of trust in the Korean government, which makes people feel vulnerable and like they must fight for their bread. Mi-rae said, “Korea’s unstable social welffare system makes people think that they can’t rely on anyone but oneself for their future”. These altogether seem to cause Korean people’s lack of composure in mind.
‘Dismissing individuals’ sorrow’: Another common response was the social tendency to dismiss individuals’ agony and depression. Traditionally, Korea values collectivism and emphasizes ‘harmony among people’. This culture can bring communities together; however this type of society can also overlook individuals’ sorrow in order to keep peace at the community level. Soi said, “In my friend’s case, she became more depressed when people told her to just endure”. In addition, Jeong-eun said “Placing more values on groups rather than individuals may lead to reduced empathy for individuals’ agony and sorrow. Korean society seems to keep telling us that ‘Life is hard for everyone and everyone is okay, so you should be okay, too’”. Jeong-eun argues that this can make people avoid talking about their depression. This phenomenon is best reflected in a popular saying by a screenwriter, Yoo Byung-jae: "I am not the only one whose life is hard; however knowing that your life is harder than mine does not make my life less hard.” This saying was first posted on Facebook, and received numerous “likes” from young Koreans.
Figure 3. A famous meme from Yoo Byung-jae's facebook
What Do Koreans Think About Remedies for Depression?
Respondents were asked where they think people can or should get help for clinical depression. Hospital was the most frequent answer; followed by friends and counseling centers or counselors. Six respondents said that depression is best to overcome by oneself. Other responses included family, religion, people who have had a depressive disorder in the past, and the internet. Interestingly in research studies (Jung et al., 2012) of Korean people’s attitude towards anti-depressants, three-fourths of Korean participants report an unwillingness to take anti-depressants. I asked two interviewees about their willingness to take medication. They both responded that they were not willing to take medication unless depressive symptoms became life-threatening. Mi-Rae said that she wouldn’t go see a psychiatrist because the record of psychiatric diagnosis may negatively influence job hunting. Yejin also said that she would not be willing to take medication because she believes it is not the best way to deal with the situation.
What Do Koreans Think of Depression Army?
Finally, respondents were asked what they thought of the Depression Army after I provided them with a brief description of what DA was. All of the respondents had favorable responses. They thought DA is a necessity in Korean society. One respondent even mentioned wanting to participate in DA. Another respondent raised a concern that Korean depressed people may not be motivated to join DA activities. Mi-rae agreed with the primary goals of DA, and said that “Things have been getting much better”. However, stigma attached to depressive disorders still remains in Korea. There are still people who believe that going to see a psychiatrist indicates that they are insane. This makes it difficult for Koreans to get help when it is needed.
Based on my interviews, I am convinced that there are misconceptions about depression in Korean society. In addition, Korean people feel the need to have an open conversation about depression, and at least 45 Korean respondents are looking forward to movements like Depression Army. As the first step in helping Koreans, we created a Korean tab on the Depression Army website, which introduces the movement in Korean (include the hyperlink here). For future actions, we would like to establish Korean Depression Army, starting with Depression Army Twitter. I truly believe that this is the time for Korean people to openly talk about their experience of depression, and take depression out of the darkness.
Sae-Jin Jung, Sang-Soo Lee, Kyung Eun Lee, Byung Koo Lee and Hye Sun Gwak. (2012). “Perception and attitude towards antidepressants in Koreans.” Korean Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, 22(1), 65-72.
The following photos were obtained from: http://www.thousandwonders.net/South+Korea
Figure 1. Bukchon hanok village
Figure 2. Seoul
Figure 3. Gyeongbok palace
Figure 4. Soeul scenary
Figure 5. Korean traditional costumes