South Korea Combats Student Suicide Epidemic With Phone App

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A new smartphone app called Suicide Safe developed in South Korea could help reduce the high suicide rate among students in the country by warning parents whose children may be at risk.

Developed by the government, the app works by searching for “suicide-related” words among children’s writing on social media, in messages, or in Internet searches on their phones, reports the education ministry.  An alert would then be sent to parents on their smartphones.

The app also offers users example profiles of people at risk of committing suicide.

The use of the app is not mandatory, but the ministry hopes it will be used by a number of parents in the country as extra precaution for students who already under school-related stress.

“Student suicide has become a social problem requiring systematic and comprehensive steps to prevent it,” the ministry said in a statement.

The suicide rate in South Korea is currently among the highest of the 34 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Student suicides have become a particular problem for the country, as they come to a peak around the same time that students participate in the highly-competitive national college entrance exam in November.  Students often study for years for the exam, known as the College Scholastic Ability Test, which determines not only their career path but can also affect future prospects for marriage.

Children attend school full time in preparation for the exam, in addition to spending a number of extra hours each day studying, which could include receiving extra help from “cram schools.”

According to education ministry data, 878 students committed suicide between 2009 and 2014, with 118 suicides occurring last year.

The most common cause for the suicides is reportedly stress at home, closely followed by depression, grades, and concerns with career choices.

Slightly more than 50% of South Korean students between the ages of 14 and 19 have reported having suicidal thoughts according to a survey conducted by the state-financed Korea Health Promotion Foundation last year.

Though many approve the new app, critics believe it does not address the main source of the country’s suicide problem, which includes academic pressures and the stigma associated with receiving mental health treatment, writes Daniel Costa-Roberts for PBS.

“Instead of a stop-gap policy, we must work out a fundamental and eventual solution, because various factors lead to the suicide of students,” the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations said in a statement, according to AFP.

The app, Suicide Safe, is available for download at Google Play and Apple’s App Store.