Written by Josh Garcia
Mental health is never a simple or easy topic to address, but it is a very real and immediate element in everyone’s life. We all want to feel happy. We all want to be mentally stable. And we hope that our choices take us down the right path. Yet, one of the most essential and undeniable aspects of life is adversity. In the case of mental health, we may be challenged by emotional and physical stress, trauma, and genetic dispositions, which can lead to a blur of negative emotions and confusion. What is most important to know is that you are not alone in overcoming these difficulties, and our first step in helping comes with breaking the silence.
The topic of mental health is often considered taboo in Korea. As many different definitions and approaches to mental health are currently debated throughout the world, modern-day Korea has most generally settled upon an attempt to provide counseling for family and youth situations, while doctors and psychiatrists hastily write off anti-depressant prescriptions for those brave enough to address their hardships openly. The main issue, culturally, comes from a notion to “save face.” For many Koreans, there is not a strong awareness of mental illness, so those who are considered moody or eccentric are often given the advice to simply “get over it.” With this, there is also a prevailing stigma that someone feeling depressed is weak and unfit, which can lead to social shaming and even pose a risk to one’s job security. When you combine these factors with the stress of long school and work schedules, as well as the heavy drinking customs endorsed by many work environments, the results can be catastrophic. Korea currently holds the second highest suicide rate in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The silver lining here is that there are some immediate steps you can take to improve your own mental health or serve as a guide to those in need.
Within a culture so full of stigma regarding feelings of loneliness or disparity, you may find that simply talking to someone is a huge relief. Whether it is to a friend or someone from a volunteer counseling group, voicing your troubles aloud has proven to be extremely therapeutic for many locals who have simply never had an outlet for their thoughts. Currently, the Gwangju International Center provides counseling for its members and is a fantastic resource for knowing which options are available to Koreans and foreigners. Through their efforts to help the international community here, they have gathered and shared with me some of the top resources in Gwangju. Contact and pricing information for all of the resources mentioned here will be listed at the end of the article.
With the large majority of leading mental healthcare facilities located in Seoul, it is often difficult for foreigners who don’t speak Korean to find proper counseling services elsewhere. This is especially the case for victims of rape or other traumas who do not match the criteria for family and youth clinics. Additionally, much of the English counseling that is available in Gwangju is provided by male staff. The GIC recommends St. John of God Hospital as a top resource in Gwangju. The hospital has English-speaking volunteers available, and there are doctors who specialize in different types of situations, depending on what the counselee requests help for. The path to counseling/therapy will start first with a visit to a general practitioner to run a few tests and match you with one of the hospital’s therapists. St. John of God has one female therapist who can speak English, which is rare in Gwangju. Two other options for English speakers are Chosun University Hospital and Kwangju Christian Hospital.
From the three hospitals mentioned above, individuals will be able to obtain professional help. However, it is important to note that counseling visits may be very limited in time and frequency depending on the therapist. After the initial consultation, further counseling may be scheduled once a week or not at all. Anti-depression medicine is commonly prescribed during the first meeting as well.
For individuals who are seeking a steadier and/or Western approach to therapy, many expats in Korea have utilized online video chat sessions with licensed therapists/counselors from their home countries, usually via Skype. Recommendations for such services can be found online and are sometimes referenced in expat Facebook groups.
Though there is no cure-all method for mental health, we must take the time to recognize its significance and find ways to normalize these situations. Similar to the Disney/Pixar film Inside Out, our stages of anger or sadness are a perfectly natural part of the human experience, and no individual should feel that their only option is to bury these unpleasant emotions for the illusion of eternal happiness. A healthy diet, some exercise, a proper amount of rest, and access to sunlight are a healthy recipe for anyone, but we often need to acknowledge that more formal and professional aid is needed for individual situations. If you feel that your thoughts have been leading you toward a negative or confusing headspace, please take the first step by opening up and reaching out. We are here for you.
Mental Health Care Service Providers
St. John of God Hospital (요한병원)
Address: 32 Taebong-ro, Buk-gu, Gwangju
Phone: 062-510-3311~2 (Hospital Administration)
Consultation Hours: Weekdays 8:30~17:00 / Sat. 8:30~12:30
Appointments only available by reservation 2–3 days in advance. Mention counseling (상담진료 Sangdam jillyo)
Process for psychotherapist: Meet a psychiatrist first, and you will be assigned to a therapist according to his or her assessment. * Please bring your current medication prescription and doctor’s note (소견서) for the reference.
Meeting a psychiatrist: around 50,000 won (with national health insurance); otherwise, 100,000–120,000 won
Meeting a therapist: around 800,000 won/1 hour (each visit)
Chosun University Hospital (조선대학교병원)
Address: 365 Pilmun-daero, Dong-gu, Gwangju
Email: [email protected] / [email protected]
English-speaking coordinator available
Online reservation available
Kwangju Christian Hospital (광주기독병원)
Address: 37 Yangrim-ro, Nam-gu, Gwangju
Consultation Hours: Weekdays 9 am – 5 pm
English-speaking helper available at the lobby.
English-speaking doctors available.
Special thanks to the GIC for compiling the information below and for their counseling services. More information can be found at http://eng.gic.or.kr/program/counsel.php
Josh Garcia is an English teacher who lives in Gwangju. He is a native Texan and uses most of his free time playing music and enjoying the outdoors.