36-year-old Jean Yoo was pretty, smart and accomplished. As the popular co-host of a Korean news program on channel LA18, she was a familiar and trusted face in the Korean American community of Los Angeles. That's why co-workers and fans were shocked to find that she had hanged herself in her condo in November.
According to New America Media, there were four suicides and another murder-suicide involving Korean Americans or Korean immigrants that same month in Los Angeles, the largest Korean enclave in the US. The day after Yoo's death, 56-year-old marketing director for Radio Korea, identified only as Choi, hanged himself in the bathroom at his work.
Part of the explanation for higher-than-average rates of suicides and suicide attempts in the Korean American community lies with the difficulties Korean immigrants face when they come to the country. Grace Yoon, executive director of the Korean American Family Service Center in New York, told The Huffington Post that Koreans come to America with high hopes of acquiring wealth and providing a good education for their children. When their expectations are not met, some feel like they have let their families down. Yoon commented that the problem has gotten worse since the recession, "especially with Korean fathers and heads of households whose small businesses are not doing well."
Yoon added that second generation Korean Americans often feel a disconnect with their parents and that Korean immigrants are more likely to speak only limited English as compared to other immigrants -- both of which contribute to a feeling of isolation and loneliness in the community.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the Korean American suicide rate is the community's cultural taboo regarding seeking mental health services. "They think that only crazy people seek mental health help, like seeing a therapist. Mental health is a new concept for them," Yoon remarked. "There's an attitude that everyone feels these emotions so you just have to deal with it."
The taboo against seeking outside help also extends to issues like domestic abuse, a serious problem in the community. A study by Columbia University surveying Asian communities in Massachusetts found that 22 percent of Cambodian respondents thought a woman should keep domestic abuse to herself. Chinese and Vietnamese respondents agreed at rates of 18 percent and 9 percent, respectively. However, the taboo was strongest among Koreans, with 29 percent believing an abused wife or girlfriend should not tell anyone about the abuse. Although studies on the topic are difficult and rarely conducted, according to a National Institute of Justice study from 2000, 60 percent of Korean immigrant wives reported being battered by their spouses.
The pressure that Korean Americans feel to be perfect was reflected on Koream Journal's Facebook posting about Yoo's death. Ester Lee wrote:
Many Korean parents are 'silent murderers'.. They drive their children into a state of madness sometimes in order to achieve higher intelligence, high statuses, and perfection. They forget that they were once children/young adults themselves... They become too immersed in their own parents' teachings (generation after generation) that it becomes a vicious cycle.
Asia Femal added to the Facebook discussion, "Koreans believe if they're not successful, they're not 'fit' to live in this world... It's time these immigrants... let the children know their life is more precious than being what is perceived as success."
For Korean American Family Service Center's 24-hour, free, confidential and bi-lingual hotline, call 718-460-3800.