Young S. Korean women’s struggles with unemployment and depression in the COVID era

Posted on : 2020-12-13 11:38 KST Modified on : 2020-12-13 11:38 KST
Suicide rates rising among women in their 20s
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Getty Images

“I just want to live a good life without being defeated.”

Things are difficult for all South Koreans in their 20s, be they men or women. This year saw the disaster of the COVID-19 pandemic added on to a job market slump that had already been persisting for several years. It’s a situation that has had even harsher consequences for young women. According to monthly employment figures from Statistics Korea, the number of employed women in their 20s between March and April 2004 was down by 241,000 from the same period in 2019 amid the severe shock of the pandemic’s first wave. The decline was fully 2.6 times larger than the loss of 93,000 jobs among employed males in their 20s.

The suicide rate among women in their 20s has also been rising sharply. Among males in their 20s, the suicide rate has not changed dramatically, inching up from 20.8 per 100,000 people in 2017 to 21.5 in 2018 and 21.6 in 2019. But among females in their 20s, the rate rose steeply in the same two-year period, climbing from 11.4 to 13.2 to 16.6, according to Statistics Korea. The number of women in their 20s who committed suicide in the first half of 2019 was up by 43.3% from the same period last year, Ministry of Health and Welfare statistics show. The trend is not abating.

The fact that the suicide rate has been rising for one specific age group is both an alarm and a cry for help. The numbers point to female 20-somethings in crisis, yet society has not paid attention. Instead, these unseen women have quietly lost their footing in society. The Hankyoreh is now trying to clearly communicate the messages these young women are sharing — for there is an answer to their calls. The silent massacre must end now.

“J,” a job-seeking college graduate born in 1995, was diagnosed by a psychiatrist a few months ago with high levels of depression, anxiety, compulsion, and lethargy. Every evening, she takes her prescribed medication before going to sleep. She also visits the hospital once every two weeks.

“At the hospital, they told me I had close to the highest score for anxiety. I don’t know if the drugs are helping, since I still feel anxiety even when I take them.”

Speaking to the Hankyoreh at a cafe in Seoul’s Mapo District on Nov. 20, J said her feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about the future have intensified for her as a job-seeker compared with her time in school. “I heard that companies generally tend to hire a low proportion of women, and I find myself asking how much of the pie is left for women when hiring as a whole is down due to COVID freezing the employment market,” she explained. “It doesn’t seem like there would be any place for me now.”

J currently lives alone in Seoul, where she works part-time as an office assistant making around 1.1 million won (US$1,011) a month. She lives in a studio apartment, with monthly expenses coming out to around 700,000-800,000 won (US$643-735). She works hard at her job and while diligently seeking more secure employment, but lately she has been feeling that there is “no hope.” This is especially the case when she looks at the real estate news and stories about corrupt hiring practices.

J said she doesn't want to be defeated by depression. Her desire to beat it is the reason she goes to the hospital for treatment. “No matter how lousy this world is, I have a burning desire to succeed and live a good life,” she said. “The situation may be garbage, but I want to really thrive. I’ve been going to the hospital to find a way of thriving. But I want to try really hard with my life.”

“Just stay alive through the end of the year”

“A,” who was born in 1991, doesn’t think about the situation a year from now or three years down the road. There’s no point in making plans when they keep getting tangled and end up becoming one more reason for feeling disappointed in herself. “I think to myself, just stay alive to the end of the month or the rest of the year.”

Three years ago, A was planning to end it all, but she stopped herself. The same thoughts have been returning recently when things become very difficult. A has worked throughout her 20s to repay the debts that her parents incurred in her name. She managed to pay it off last year, but making ends meet is always a struggle.

The self-help generation

Psychiatrist and Mind Mansion director Ahn Ju-yeon sees young women in her office. In a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh, she described the kind of “self-help” she has observed these days among young women — a situation where the consumers rather than the suppliers take the initiative within the healthcare system.

“Nowadays, when women in their 20s see a friend struggling, they’ll say, ‘It’s time to get treatment,’ and they’ll offer their support by suggesting going together to the hospital,” she explained. “They represent the first generation that underwent depression testing at school in their adolescent years, as well as the first one to understand that you need to get treatment when you’re depressed.”

In 2008, “Wee Classes” were introduced as a psychological counseling service in elementary, middle, and high schools along the same lines as the school infirmaries of the past. South Koreans in their 20s today were the first generation to experience them.

“The reason so many people are visiting hospitals is because young people today are engaging in ‘self-help’ and telling each other, ‘We need to not die,’” Ahn said. Indeed, she said that many of those who visit her hospital mention that a friend told them about it, or come with friends or a significant other. The situation related by Ahn is one in which information about treatments for depression — things like “which hospital is the best” — is shared like lifestyle tips among young women.

Ahn said the fact that young women actively seek out psychiatrists when they feel the need represents one of their greatest strengths. Once a patient has recovered from depression to some extent, their social environment is important. But some of the sources of stress to women in their 20s are resistant to improvements, including a misogynistic culture and the sexist structures they encounter in the employment world.

Even amid these circumstances, young women are strongly committed to working together toward breaking down and transcending the practical barriers. A video by Slap that focused on the sharp rise in the suicide rate among young women drew many comments sending messages of mutual encouragement. One commenter wrote, “This takes away some of that feeling I had that I was all alone in my struggles. It’s comforting to know that so many people are searching for a solution together. Let’s all work hard to survive.”

Another wrote, “These days, I’ve had this strong wish for all of us to thrive together rather than simply thriving on our own. I’d like to see all women happy, healthy, and thriving. I want us to survive together rather than dying.”

Ahn said this kind of support is crucial for women in their 20s as they face a crisis of psychological health.

“Social connections and a welcoming environment are absolutely essential to young women who feel isolated or aren’t being supported at home,” she stressed.

By Kim Mi-hyang, staff reporter

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