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Hidden Wounds of the Mind

   Due to academic and workplace bullying, job-related stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional distress and damage are widespread. However, unlike physical damage, there’s no objective way of evaluating or recognising mental illness. As a result, compensation and remedial measures for mental harm are not properly recognised as necessary and are therefore insufficient.

 

So what is mental damage?

   When suffering from excessive stress or traumatic events, mental damage may manifest itself as trauma, paranoia, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), among other mental illnesses. However, as each person is different, the degree of damage inflicted on each individual also differs, even if the accident or event is the same, making objective evaluation of mental damage is almost impossible.

   Furthermore, mental illness is far more common in our society than many estimate. According to the 2011 Mental Illness Epidemiologic Survey, carried out by the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, 27.6% (20.3% if nicotine addiction is excluded) of people are said to experience at least one kind of mental illness in their life. Especially, those who have occupations in which death and violence are common occurrunces, such as soldiers, firefighters or medical personnel, frequently suffer from mental injuries.

   Even though the victims of mental illness are numerous, they have difficulties in expressing their suffering as the majority of people are oblivious to it. Even when victims confide their pain and suffering to their friends, family, and colleagues, too often those problems are considered as minor and temporary and are therefore ignored.

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder in firefighters

   Firefighters, who face death and distress on a daily basis, are known to be particularly susceptible to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). According to the 2016 Korean parliamentary inspection, 76% of firefighters have experienced trying to rescue victims of traumatic death or injury, and according to SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) research in 2015, 40% of firefighters had suffered from depression, 70% had symptoms of PTSD, indicating that mental distress didn’t just influence their work but also their private lives. In fact, the same research in 2015 shows that the number of firefighters who committed suicide was more than six times as many as those who perished in the line of duty.

   In order to alleviate these mental health issues, the Korean government implemented the Health and Emergency Management Programme for Fire Service Personnel. However, when parliament conducted its 2016 inspection of the 4,360 firefighters serving in Incheon, the results were disappointing: as many as 60% of firefighters (2,593 out of 4,281 respondents) hadn’t used this service, and 75% of the programme’s users answered that the service was useless.

Image from Paradigm Malibu

How does the international community cope with mental illness?

   While the Korean government is implementing projects and programmess to alleviate mental illness, it is failing to achieve expected efficiency. So, how does the international community successfully cope with mental illness? Unlike Korea, which underestimates the severity of mental health issues, the international community recognises mental illness as a formal injury and provides various systematic and organised ways to help sufferers.

   For instance, in the United States, Veterans Affairs (VA) department established The National Center for PTSD in 1989, and has since undertaken extensive research on mental illness. Based on this, it supports firefighters, police officers, veterans, and victims of disasters. Though it doesn’t actually provide direct clinical treatment, the US government has supported psychiatric treatment for more than 1.5 million veterans through the establishment of the National PTSD Center.

   In Japan, the Hyogo Institute for Traumatic Stress was established in 2004, with a special interest in victims of disaster and crime (which was particularly important after the 1995 Kobe earthquake). It carries out various functions, such as research on various mental health issues including PTSD, provides counselling/medical treatment, is responsible for information collection and dissemination, and also facilitates cooperation between related departments and institutions in order to help victims of mental illness.

   In the international community, alongside with many governments, private companies also recognise mental health support as important factor for the welfare of employees.

   For example, Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are programmes which assess employees’ stress levels, and supports their mental health through regular group discussions and surveys. According to a survey conducted by the US National Institute of Health on 3,000 workplaces in the United States, 60% of workplaces with more than 750 workers are running stress management programmes to promote the mental health of employees.

   In order to improve stressful working environments, some companies went further by dealing directly with mental illness through counsellor placement. Multinational companies such as Yahoo, Google, and Apple have introduced meditation classes as part of their in-house training programmes.

   In the case of SAS (Sugiya Automobile Suppliers) Japan, employees have been able to receive professional massage services free of charge, once a week, since 2002. Additionally, SAS US headquarters office building is located on a site larger than 3.6 km2 and is equipped with a nursery school, medical centre, fitness centre, swimming pool, golf course, and other facilities to help employees relieve stress. As the result of such a stress-free work environment that emphasises the importance of mental health, the company has a turnover rate of only 3%, and has also been selected as one of the ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ by Fortune magazine for nine consecutive years. They acknowledge that the establishment of such a stress-free work environment by SAS Japan and US hasn’t only increased employee satisfaction but contributes to the stability of the company.

 

How does Korean society cope with mental illness?

   In 2014, the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare, Seoul National Hospital, and The National Mental Health Commission conducted a nationwide survey on 1,111 men and women aged 15 to 69 to investigate the national perception of mental illness. According to this research, the national perception of mental illness is now more positive compared with past perceptions of mental illness as chronic, irreparable, and dangerous ‘disease’. A total of 41.5% agreed that once you have a mental illness it’s incurable, which is 11% less than the 2007 survey.

   However, prejudice and discrimination against mental illness still exist in Korean society. For instance, according to the 2014 National Perception of Mental Illness survey, 45.3% of respondents said that they would feel uncomfortable when talking with a person with a mental illness. As discrimination against mental illness is still prevalent, individuals suffering from mental illness are often reluctant to expose their suffering and so can fail to seek appropriate treatment.

   In addition, a survey by The National Mental Health Commission in 2014 revealed that only 33.1% of respondents would be willing to rent a room in their home to someone with mental health issues,  and 19.3% were willing to introduce a friend as a potential marriage partner to someone suffering from a mental illness.

   Such discrimination seems to be institutionalized. For instance, if an individual has any official record of consulting a psychiatrist, he or she will be unable to obtain a driver’s license unless firstly acquiring a medical certificate from psychological specialist. Even if this individual obtains a driver’s license with the consent of the specialist, he or she must pass an annual ‘aptitude test’. Moreover, his or her application for car insurance will most likely be rejected.

   In spite of these criticisms, the government doesn’t just stand by as such prejudice and discrimination happens. Every municipality has at least one institution or organisation funded and managed by the government to provide support for citizens suffering from mental illness. The police also operate a trauma center (Seoul Boramae Hospital), and the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) runs a Mental Health Management Programme.

   In the private sector, companies also operate healthcare programmes and counselling centres. Shinhan Bank introduced a Stress Management Programme at the end of 2009 which provides an online stress diagnosis service. If the diagnosis result is severe, psychological counselling can be obtained from professional counsellors either in the workplace or elsewhere. However, the efficiency of such programmes is questioned, as people avoid using such programmes in fear of the release of diagnosis results to the company and due to the potential ‘inconvenience’ of having to visit an external counsellor. Additionally, LG Electronics also has a 'Mam-Pool-E Consultation Room', established on the LG Electronics R & D campus in 2006, which has an average of four to five researchers visiting each day to receive counselling. The majority of visitors to the consultation room are manager-level employees, with a limited number of lower-level employees using the service.

   In spite of these programmes and institutions, Korea generally overlooks the problem of prejudice and discrimination against mental illness and the lack of a system for addressing occupational mental injuries. Existing programmes and systems are subject to much criticism for their poor management. However, as mental health is directly linked to the overall health and stability of society, it’s a matter of urgency to improve the perception of and provisions for mental illness.

조상현  jeremycho318@gmail.com

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