South Korea says it’s overhauling its mental health care policies — but is it going far enough?

Posted on : 2023-12-06 17:25 KST Modified on : 2023-12-06 17:42 KST
The country’s government announced major investments in mental health care and prevention, but with over 1 million Koreans at moderate to high risk of mental health issues that could lead to suicide or self-harm, some medical professionals say acute care needs to be prioritized
Minister of Health and Welfare Cho Kyoo-hong announces an overhaul of the country’s mental health policy at the government complex in Seoul on Dec. 5. (courtesy of the Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Minister of Health and Welfare Cho Kyoo-hong announces an overhaul of the country’s mental health policy at the government complex in Seoul on Dec. 5. (courtesy of the Ministry of Health and Welfare)

The South Korean government announced Tuesday that it is going to invest 780 billion won (US$594.3 million) over the next five years in overhauling and expanding the scope of its mental health policies, citing the increasing severity of societal issues caused by mental issues such as depression and schizophrenia. Critics in the medical community, however, say that, in addition to preventative policies regarding mental health, the government needs to increase the number of emergency care beds and treatment facilities for individuals experiencing acute mental health crises.

According to data released by the Ministry of Health and Welfare on Tuesday, the number of Koreans who received treatment for mental health issues (including dementia) increased from 2.89 million in 2015 to 4.11 million in 2021, a 42.2% increase in just six years. During the same period, the amount of money spent on mental health treatments increased from 4.1 trillion won (US$3.12 billion) to 6.5 trillion won (US$4.95 billion), an increase of 58.5%. The ministry estimates that 1.6 million Koreans are at moderate to high risk of mental issues that lead to suicide or self-harm.

What’s alarming is that the data reveals rapid increases in the number of people in their 20s and 30s reporting mental health issues. The number of people in their 20s who received treatment for depression almost doubled between 2018 and 2022, from 99,696 to 194,322. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the number of households facing social isolation or economic troubles has increased. The Health Ministry points to this as a factor in the rising rates of depression and anxiety disorders.

People who suffer from mental health issues and do not receive proper treatment are at risk of suicide, self-harm or hurting others. This is what happened when a man went on a stabbing rampage in front of Seohyeon Station in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. Or when a young man in his 20s stabbed a teacher in his 40s at a high school in Daejeon. Both incidents occurred this past August. According to data from the National Police Agency, the number of offenders reportedly experiencing mental health issues rose from 5,302 in 2012 (0.3% of all offenders) to 9,875 (0.8%) in 2022, an increase of 86.3%.

The government’s recent policy initiative focuses on spotting mental health issues early and preventative care. The Health and Welfare Ministry plans on providing biannual mental health check-ups for people aged 20 to 34 starting in 2025. The state will also increase the number of mental health centers, or “work trauma centers,” for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder related to serious occupational accidents or injury, or for people suffering from mental health issues due to emotional labor. The number of such centers will be increased from the current 14 to 23.

Starting July 2024, there will be obligatory suicide-prevention education for around 16 million students, office workers, and personnel at welfare or social service centers and medical facilities. The education will focus on spotting early signs of mental health issues and ways to ask for help.

“Mental health experts have determined that schizophrenia often emerges at around age 25, while depression usually begins onset at age 30,” said Lee Hyeong-hoon, the ministry’s mental health policy coordinator, during a press briefing.

“As many mental health issues start in one’s 20s and 30s, it’s key to spot them early, provide counseling and offer pharmaceutical treatment on the road to recovery,” Lee said.

To make these policies more effective, the medical community has called for more beds in major hospitals devoted to treating patients experiencing acute mental health episodes. According to the Korean Neuropsychiatric Association, the number of hospital beds devoted to mental health treatment diminished from 67,000 in 2017 to 53,000 as of this year. The average daily cost of a hospital bed for a patient requiring acute psychiatric care hospitalized for less than 30 days is 182,000 won (US$138). This is about a third of the average costs incurred in a US hospital, (around US$411 for schizophrenia patients), so major South Korean hospitals have determined that devoting beds to acute mental health patients is not financially feasible.

“We will double the number of emergency hospital beds for mental health patients and apportion them around all cities, counties and districts, as well as improve hospital conditions,” announced South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Tuesday.

Yet hospitals need more beds to accommodate patients on holidays and during night shifts, in addition to facilities and personnel that specialize in mental health treatment.

“While the amount national health insurance pays out for inpatient mental health treatment is low, the amount it pays out for talk therapy [mainly done in clinics] is high, which has caused a lot of doctors to leave major hospitals for these smaller clinics,” said Kim Yoon, a professor of health policy and management at Seoul National University College of Medicine.

“We need to increase the national insurance coverage of treatment for acute mental disorders at university hospitals and major hospitals as well as design policies that encourage more medical students to specialize in mental health,” Kim added.

By Cheon Ho-sung, staff reporter

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