(Yonhap Feature) Listening to save lives
By Curtis File
SEOUL, Nov. 28 (Yonhap) -- When Han Hyun-sun answered the phone, the man on the other end was drunk and said he had a bottle of pills at the ready. In his groggy state he slurred the question Han hears all too often: "What do I have to live for?"
Han, now in her 70s, has been a volunteer counselor for the Seoul-based organization Counsel 24 since the late 1980s. With that call, her years of experience warned her that the situation was more dire than usual.
"I was certain he was actually going to go through with it," said Han, as she recalled the story in her tiny office in Mapo-gu, western Seoul. "Most of the time people say 'I want to die' and it is just a cry for help... but this man was different. He had everything prepared."
So, armed with only her phone, she did the only thing she could -- called 119 and hoped for the best. The situation ended well. The police arrived in time to prevent the man from harming himself and, a year later, he called Han back to thank her for her help.
"I was so relieved to hear back from him," she said. "I hear from so many people and sometimes I just don't know what happens to them."
Not every story has a happy ending.
Every year more than 15,000 people commit suicide in Korea, and an estimated 10 to 20 times that number make an attempt, according to Ha Sang-hun, professor of education and counseling at Korea University and head of LifeLine, South Korea's first 24-hour suicide hotline.
This gives South Korea one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, ranking first among member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to a 2009 report issued by the organization. People like Han and Ha have been fighting the problem for decades.
Han Hyun-sun, volunteer counselor at Counsel 24
Han was the 25th volunteer to sign up for Counsel 24's program, which has been operating for more than 30 years. Back then, volunteers required roughly one year of in-school study followed by eight hours of professor-evaluated counseling. After completing those requirements, Han began taking calls eight hours a month, and two decades has increased her commitment to 30 hours.
On a typical shift, Han takes an average of seven or eight calls lasting anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes each. Over the years, she said, there has been a huge increase in the number of calls that concern suicide.
Most of those calls are simply people looking for some companionship, she said. She believes only one or two per month are people who are serious about following through and it's taken her time to hone her approach. She remembers her embarrassment over the first serious call she answered.
"I didn't know what to say," she said. "How could I talk to them? How could I solve their problems?" Time and experience has taught her to be a pair of ears rather than a problem solver.
"I've learned to be patient," said Han, emphasizing that listening to the caller and highlighting their attributes is an effective tactic. "Usually it takes about 30 minutes before they tell me what they really want to say... after that, the most important thing I can do is give them hope."
Instilling hope is the same goal Ha is trying to achieve at LifeLine. He has partnered with Seoul City in installing emergency phones in high-risk zones, including the walkway on Mapo Bridge. The grey boxes are barely noticeable between the flow of heavy traffic and the backdrop of the Seoul skyline overlooking Seyonudo Park. But the dark green letters "SOS" scrolled on their sides are a reminder that even places of great beauty have their ugly secrets.
In a report issued by Seoul City earlier this year, Mapo Bridge ranked first among jump locations chosen by would-be suicides, with 113 attempts made there from 2006 to 2010. The problem, however, goes deeper than statistics can relate.
"One suicide will have an impact on at least six people," said Ha. "Friends and family are usually shocked... that is the real problem. It's not just a private problem."
Emergency phones have been installed in high-risk zones, including the walkway on Mapo Bridge which ranked first among jump locations for would-be suicides.
Though research and statistics on suicide are available, they throw no light on the root causes. Talk to three different counselors and you will hear three different answers.
Han sees feelings of loneliness as the biggest factor, and it is one that affected her own family. A niece committed suicide at the age of 30, leaving behind a husband and two children. "It was her resistance to indifference," said Han. "She really believed nobody cared about her... but of course they did."
Ha has a different perspective. He sees the rapid growth of South Korea and its changing family model as reason the elderly are the highest risk group. "People are afraid to be a burden on their children... they don't want to be viewed as a problem," he said.
Han Na is a full-time counselor for Counsel 24 and is currently studying the competitive culture of Korea. "Some of it has to do with family problems, financial problems... and our culture of competition," she said. "People compete over everything here: grades, money... Koreans always want to show they are the best."
All three agree that suicide can be a combination of many factors, though, and that any solution lies in education, awareness and participation.
"The most important thing I can say is to care for your family members," said Han Hyun-sun. "Know the signs. If they aren't talking or they become isolated, show them you care. It can make all the difference."