Korea’s Education System: A Contributing Factor to Students’ Depression and Suicidal Tendencies
South Korea is known for its profound economic development. What used to be the poor nation is “now the world’s 13th largest economy” (Singh, 2017, para. 2). But, in spite of being economically competitive, this nation has faced a problem of suicide. South Korea has remained the top country that has the highest suicide rate among the industrialized countries over the past two decades, according to the “Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD)” (Singh, 2017, para. 3) report. Personal, work, economic and academic concerns are just the several factors of South Korean suicidal behaviors. The increasing suicidal rates are just a manifestation that South Korea has never successfully addressed the problem of suicide among its people. “Suicide is everywhere” (Singh, 2017, para. 1) as stated by South Korean author Young-ha Kim when he refers to modern Korean society (Singh, 2017). The growing cases of suicide in South Korea do not only encompass a specific age bracket, but a wide array of its population from children, teenagers, young adults to adults.
A 2017 study on suicidal deaths in elementary students in Korea concludes that the suicidal deaths in South Korea are disturbing because not only teenagers and adults commit suicide but also the younger ones, specifically elementary students (Hong, Cho, Hong, Kim & Kweon, 2017). In addition, the mentioned study claims that depression is the main reason for such early suicidal deaths. Therefore, it is confirmatory that there is a strong connection between depression and suicide (Zong, 2015). It is alarming that children even at their young age are not excluded from having depressive tendencies. Analyzing the problem, it is very crucial to put importance on determining what causes depression among South Koreans especially among young people. It is apparent that these elementary students, from the mentioned study, suffer from depression mainly because of academic stress. Thus, this paper examines the relationship of depression and education system in South Korea that leads to the growing number of suicidal cases.
South Korea’s highest suicidal rate over the past two decades clearly suggests that the problem lies in their society. Since depression and suicide in South Korea are broad issues, the extent of this paper only focuses on the subject of depression and suicide among Korean students, from primary to university students. It is very important to analyze Korea’s education system and how it contributes to depressive behaviors among its students to address the problem of suicide in their society. Nonetheless, this paper does not only examine how Korea’s education system affects students in the worst scenarios, but also provides concrete recommendations to lessen the suicidal rate in Korean society, especially that this unresolved social issue greatly affect young generations.
Initially, essential terms are defined for familiarity of the problem. Depression is a serious problem concerning health “characterized by persistent low mood that is accompanied by low self-esteem and by a loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities” (Choi, 2015, p. 1). Those who have depressive behaviors tend to have uncontrollable emotions. Untreated depression issues can lead to much more serious cases such as suicide. Since this paper examines Korea’s education system, it is also necessary to provide definite clarification of academic-related terms used in this study such as Hakwons, CSAT and ASC. Hakwons are called “cramming schools” (Carr & Wang, 2015, p. 4) where Korean students are expected to attend after their regular school hours for reviewing, doing homework and taking advanced lessons. ASCs (after-school classes) is another term used in South Korea referring to any out of school academies that offer activities not related to schooling, thus often provides lessons in arts or culture (Carr & Wang, 2015). “CSAT, or College Scholastic Ability Test” (Rishi, 2013, p. 5) is the most familiar part of Korea’s education system. It is an extremely complex examination that high school students need to take. CSAT refers to. CSAT is an annual exam that determines which university a student fits to attend to. As the paper progresses, such terms are discussed more thoroughly.
This paper claims that Korea’s education system is linked to depressive behaviors of students that lead to the growing number of suicidal cases. To justify the claim of this study, three supports are provided. First, Koreans students suffer from demanding academic environment that mainly causes them stress. Second, Korean students are forced to spend their time studying for long hours that greatly affects them emotionally and mentally. Third, Korea’s education system is burdensome to students because their society considers high academic status a manifestation of much better life. Therefore, this paper asserts that the harshly competitive education system in South Korea is a contributing factor to students’ depressive and suicidal behaviors.
South Korea’s view about education is distinguished. There is even this term “education fever” that sets South Korea apart from other countries. Parents do anything to support their kids in schooling, Korean society values CSAT and students attend after-school classes and cramming schools. Such things are what encompassed the education fever in South Korea. Since the ideas of Confucianism influenced the nation, South Korea has emphasized hard work that is essential in social mobility (Rishi, 2013). Confucianism essentially shaped South Korea’s education system. Tracing back history, Koreans achieved social mobility and honor through great knowledge and hard work. In a Confucian philosophical belief, once an individual passed examinations, that person possessed intellectual ability through hard work. Thus, passing the examinations reflected prestige which was essential to have high social ranking. Consequently, earned respect and good status are correlated with academic achievements in South Korean society today. How they view education as a key to change social ranking (Calonge, 2015) signifies that Korea’s education system is not comparable with other nations’ education system. It is characterized as harshly competitive because students are generally exposed to challenging and stressful academic environments.
First, Korea’s education system is challenging and stressful. Such academic environments mainly cause students stress. From elementary to college years, Korean students are expected to excel academically. It is evident that Korean schools have fascinating facilities and good learning materials to provide excellent academic atmosphere. But ironically, Korean schools seem to be a non-friendly environment since students feel stressed fulfilling their academic duties. Rishi (2013) states in her study that high school students normally start their classes at eight in the morning. However, they come earlier than eight in the morning to study. They have 50 minutes for each class with 10 minutes break time in between each subject. Then when 4th class finishes, they have lunch time. After lunch break, they continued same class hours and break times until their classes finish. Considering high school students need to take CSAT, they take more time studying in school because they prepare for CSAT. As a result, they stay in school later than seven in the evening. High school students do not just end their typical day reviewing lessons inside their school after their regular classes because they still have to attend Hakwons or cramming schools until late night.
Most schools in South Korea recommend students to attend Hakwons for better learning and academic performance. As Calonge (2015) points out, it is the cruelly challenging education system in South Korea that causes students’ stress because it requires excellence in performance. High school students spend longer hours studying. Two to three hours of sleep is already enough for them as long as they spend more time reviewing and preparing for CSAT. As mentioned in the earlier section of this paper, CSAT or College Scholastic Ability Test) is a crucial examination for students to pass because their test score determines their university and their future as well. Such educational environments are already a social norm in South Korea that even young students need to conform to.
According to Berkeley Political Review, a 2017 study on stress and suicide in Korean society, South Korean students face stress, anxiety and depression because of the deadly school cultures. Most students, even elementary, cannot escape from academic pressures. Toxic school works and pressures that include homework, tests and competition for grades are the factors why students, even at their young age, suffer from depression that often leads to committing suicide (Porter, 2016). At their young age, they are placed in extreme academic environment, including the extended lessons they receive from Hakwons and ASCs (after-school classes). Children commit suicide mainly out of stress from studying. This is just one of the evidences why Korea’s education system is stressful and harsh. The previous study (Hong et al., 2017) evaluates 19 cases of suicide among elementary students. The study affirms that these elementary students committed suicide due to academic stress in and outside school. The youngest student who is in 3rd grade jumped from the highest floor of the building. In addition, the previously mentioned form of suicide is the most commonly used among Korean students. 5-12 is the age bracket that was reportedly committed suicide. It is just distressing that Korea’s education system puts its students especially young students in extreme academic conditions that greatly affect them mentally and emotionally.
Second, Korean students are forced to spend their time studying for long hours, both academic and skills related lessons. This makes students unable to enjoy their free time with friends and do leisure activities that can totally affect them. Since academic high performance is valued in Korea’s education system, students still do other necessary tasks when they do not do schoolwork. Korean students need to learn more from tutorials to have good performance in any academic or non-academic fields. Because of this, they cannot enjoy and do leisure activities in their free time that can affect them both mentally and emotionally. It is saddening that they tend to disregard their passion and interest that often leads to psychological predicaments (Choi & Park, 2014). Analyzing the schedule and things Korean students do, it is clear that they do not get enough rest and sleep or even do something that provides them relaxation. Usually, parents force their kids to have non-academic lessons such as learning how to play musical instruments, play sports and practice art. Parents believe that students also need to enhance any non-academic related skills for excellence.
“After-school classes (ASCs) were seized on as a means of delivering a more holistic education that would enhance the creativity of students, often with arts or cultural focus” (Carr & Wang, 2015, p. 5). This may be countered as one positive effect of Korea’s system, but the fact that students do not get to choose what they want to pursue since their parents decide what skills they need to have and enhance. Aside from the stressful academic duty they compel to, most students also face a damaging instance of pursuing what they do not enjoy that surely can affect emotionally. According to the 2014 Youth Happiness Index, only 67.6% of young Koreans considered that they have a satisfactory life; 85.8% is the standard though (Calonge, 2015, para. 13). Thus, compelling to learning what is dictated to them and not because that is what their interest can definitely give them emotional distress. In worse cases, they tend to feel depressed that they do not have enough time to enjoy with friends. And because of these underlying factors, most of them want to commit suicide because they feel desperate, down and useless (Zong, 2015). The heavy responsibility that students carry because their society expects them to have is detrimental. In Korean society where high academic achievements play a significant role in achieving honor and social high social status, students are confronted with the burden that if they fail to meet these expectations, they tend to have depressive and suicidal behaviors.
Third, Korean society puts high expectations to its people to excel in everything. Korean families expect their students to do well in academics for social mobility and family honor. Passing the CSAT is one essential key to bring family honor and prestige. The test scores are not only very important for students’ future but also a significant key in the life of South Korean families. Passing the CSAT is once in a lifetime opportunity for students to enter one of the most prominent universities in Korea that definitely affects their entire lives (Calonge, 2015). CSAT is considered the main reason why high school students face a serious problem of depression and suicide. High school students focus on reviewing and thinking about passing the CSAT that they choose to stay awake and sleep for only short period of time even on weekends (Rishi, 2013). Since Korean society expects too much from its students to excel well especially academically, students feel the extreme pressure studying that they tend to neglect the thought of relaxation.
The desire to pass the college entrance exam in South Korea is a contributing factor to high school students’ stress, anxiety and depression (Zong, 2015). CSAT is held only once a year that puts so much pressure to high school students. Since test scores in CSAT determine which university a student fits to attend to, grades predetermine students’ life in Korean society. Parents consider that when their kids are attending a prestigious university, it will indicate good future not only for their kids but also for the rest of their family. Rishi (2013) highlights in her study that CSAT is tough because not all of the students can passed well. Unfortunately, even when students pass the CSAT, but end up attending not famous universities, they begin to have low self-confidence and depressive behaviors because of the shame that they bring to their families. Most of the times, students do not get emotional support and are expected to do well for the best outcomes. From the previous study that has been mentioned, one case on the harsh treatment of a parent was documented as evidence. A high school student got beaten and abused verbally by his own mother simply because his marks were not satisfactory. Analyzing the worse incidents of abuse and maltreatment, students just begin having psychological burdens such as depression that stem out most likely from feeling anxious and having low self-esteem. Since they do not have the courage to express themselves, they choose to commit suicide. Moreover, they commit suicide because they do not want to disgrace their family (Rishi, 2013). Elementary and high school students are not the only ones who suffer from the high expectations of their society but also college students.
Most university students continue to feel stressed and pressured studying because they simply need good educational background for future job applications. A 2015 study on Korean university depression and anxiety proves that not only high school students suffer from extreme academic pressures but also students who already entered universities after taking CSAT. They are more likely to get frustrated because of the competition for good academic records which are needed to find one of the best jobs. Eventually, students in universities are diagnosed with depressive and suicidal behaviors (Choi, Ju, Kim, Kim, Kim & Yu, 2015). In addition, “low education level increases the chance of suicidal behavior for individuals” (Porter, 2016, p. 5). Korea’s education system is burdensome to students because their society considers high academic status, a manifestation of much better life that if not achieved, they tend to have depressive tendencies that can be a contributing factor to their suicidal behaviors.
Given the three solid proofs why Korea’s education system links to depressive and suicide behaviors of students, argument can still be countered such as the following.
First, Korea is economically developed and education is not the reason why depression and suicide are common among students, it is actually the economic status not the academic. As a response, Choi and Park (2014) claim that children, whose parents have competitive professions, suffer more because of the academic pressure their parents put to them. To clarify more, honor of the family is important that students need to pass CSAT. Families receive prestige and high social hierarchy when their students study in one of the best universities in South Korea.
Since Korean society values what kind of career an individual has, graduating from the best university also determines having a good job in the future (Calonge, 2015). Koreans put so much value to the idea of acceptance in their society. They strive hard to have a good economic status that is why work and study pressures are what they always carry. The root cause of high economic status is obviously their educational background. They get high paying jobs when they graduate from a high-end university and this serves as one of the factors why Korean students put so much effort in studying at an early age.
The last counterargument is likely that college exam is part of the education system and this does not really affect Korean students to feel depressed and commit suicide if they fail in this exam, just like what other students in different countries experience. As explained in the previous section of this paper, high school students only have a chance to take the CSAT once a year. Therefore, it is very necessary for them to pass the examination. Everybody is aware that not just passing but having the best scores is placing students’ life in a better situation, both in a current situation or in the future.
Having a low score or failing the examination leaves a terrible and strong impact on students’ life. And because of this, committing suicide is the best decision to escape humiliation (Rishi, 2013). Korea has this kind of national college exam which is different from other countries. Their scores in this exam determine what university they need to get into. Once they fail, they need to retake the following year, so they will be vacated for one year while others are already studying. This puts so much pressure to students and shame to their families. Unlike the other countries, students can take college exams in any school they want to go to. Korea’s system is different.
Since Korea’s education system is harshly competitive, students are faced with stressful academic pressures that greatly affect them. If they fail to meet the expectations that their society places upon them, they tend to suffer from depression and in much worse cases, commit suicide out of shame. It is worrying that students suffer from depression do not get proper counseling because schools in South Korea have poor counseling system. A Korean college student who happened to fail CSAT states that students think of committing suicide because that is the only way they can let their feeling out. He also adds that the problem gets worse because those who suffer from depression do not get enough support or a form of therapy from their schools and as a result, they cannot talk about their depressive behaviors that they end up committing suicide (Rishi, 2013). Examining the roots of stress, anxiety and depression of students, it is very clear that it is not only because of Korea’s education system, but also because of the society’s insufficient support system.
Korean society may have already established a harsh reality in its education system, addressing the problem is still possible. First, schools in South Korea should provide a well-organized and friendlier counseling system that can help students express their mental, emotional, psychological and behavioral distress.
Second, parents should be aware of their kids’ frustration and anxiety especially when they face extreme academic pressures. They can offer support through encouraging them that they can still do well without putting so much stress on themselves.
Third, the government, especially the academic institutions, should not only focus on their goals on excelling academically but should also be concerned about their students’ wellbeing by abolishing CSAT. College entrance examination is better administered by every college or university, not by the entire nation. This can surely lessen the stress each test taker has before and after the examinations.
Through these recommendations, addressing the problem of depression and suicide can really have an impact. One step to changing the education system without compromising the quality of education should be taken considerably for the sake of students’ psychological, mental, social and emotional behaviors. South Korea can still conform to globalization and continue to rise as economic power without stressing out harsh education fever.
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