Noonsong was shocked to read in the news that female depression was on the rise along with suicide rates. Despite the seriousness of the problem, she hadn't seen many stories about female suicide in the media. Then, she wondered how depression occurs and why it's on the rise silently.
The melancholy that envelops women
Depression is not just an individual problem and now a part of society. According to "Depression Treatment Status" released by the National Health Insurance Service, the number of people treated for depression increased from 752,976 in 2018 to 1,000,744 in 2022. This is a 32.9 percent jump in the last five years, and as of 2022, this works out to about 1 in 500 people suffering from depression. Among the number of people treated for depression in 2022, 674,555 were women and 326,189 were men, and for women in their 20s, there was a 110.65 percent increase from 57,696 in 2018 to 121,534 in 2022.1) It indicates a more rapid increase in women. In 2022, female patients made up 67.4 percent of all patients with depression. Since it has more than doubled in five years, it indicates that the rate of increase is also rising. These figures imply a higher incidence of depression in women, especially those vulnerable to it.
This situation is a serious problem in that depression interrupts sufferers' daily lives. The Korea Basic Science Institute announced that women suffering from depression have significantly lower levels of taurine in the brain than non-depressed women. According to a comparison of depressed patients and non-depressed women aged 19 to 29, the average taurine concentration was 0.91 mM and 1.13 mM respectively. Taurine regulates intracellular calcium enhancement to prevent osteoporosis and treats the body's bile acids, and reduced taurine levels can affect aging and lifespan. In other words, women who suffer from depression can rapidly age or shorten their lifespan due to a decrease in taurine concentration. Further, people with depression have difficulties coping with the mental anguish caused by it. Depression can also cause sleep disorders, eating disorders, hallucinations, and delusions. All these symptoms are critical, but hallucination and delusion are especially dangerous. If the patients are suffering from those, pessimistic thoughts that this condition will continue may lead to suicidal thoughts, thus the risk of suicide could increase. As such, depression adversely affects people's physical health as well as their mental health.
The root of feeling blue in society
The reason for the increase in women's depression is mainly known to be an imbalance in their hormones and neurotransmitters. This means women are more prone to depression due to lower serotonin production than men. Serotonin is often referred to as the "happy hormone," and it's a neurotransmitter that helps people sleep and boosts people's mood. Since women produce less serotonin than men, the result is that women are more susceptible to depression. However, it is argued that this physiological and biological explanation for the increased incidence of depression in women is flawed. Critics point to structural and cultural factors in society that contribute to depression in women. Women's social and economic status has risen compared to the past, but they still face more constraints compared to men, and this may play a role in depression. Lee Min-ah, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University, says "It's not that there are no differences in sex hormones between men and women. The problem is that the impact is exaggerated and reduces women to what they are by nature."2) While she acknowledges the differences in sex hormones between men and women, she argues that they aren't the root cause of the problem. She believes that social causes are the fundamental reason, and neurotransmitter and hormonal imbalances are simply mediating factors between the two, so people shouldn't be looking for solutions to physiological causes alone. When focusing on depression in women, it seems necessary to identify exactly what the underlying causes of the problem are first.
In addition to this social structure, some policies about the work environment and crimes seems to be insufficient. Unlike in the past, more women are entering the workforce and the education gap between men and women has closed, but the discrimination they face in the labor market has not been eliminated. According to the "Seoul Women's Family Policy Review" released by the Seoul Women's Family Foundation in December 2022, the gap between men and women in terms of depression widened the most among those in their 20s. Women cited gender discrimination in the labor market as the reason for their high levels of depression. Even though women in their 20s have the same level of education and participation in the labor force as men, 27.6 percent of them earn an average monthly income of just over 3 million won while that of men stood at 35.5 percent, 7.9 percentage points higher. This is especially true among young people who are actively searching for jobs, and it seems that this economic discrimination is causing more women to feel depressed. Also, women's depression can deepen as their inherent fears of crimes against them such as illegal filming and dissemination are realized. Lee Soo-jeong, a professor of criminal psychology at Kyunggi University, said "Currently, there are few laws that can be applied to sexual crimes committed in cyberspace. Legislative efforts are needed to control cyberspace."3) She noted that the methods of crimes have also changed, but there is a gap in the law to prevent offenders or punish them appropriately. It creates the recognition that the laws do not protect society, and exposure to the risk of crime works as a trigger for depression.
Other South Korean women's policies such as childbirth grants tend to focus on population growth rather than on women's intrinsic safety and well-being. This policy orientation risks relegating women to the status of a means to achieve the country's population planning policy goals. The population challenges facing South Korea have arisen in a context where economic and social gender equality has not been established. This environment does not support men and women being on an equal footing within the family structure, as women are assumed to be childcare providers. In addition, to solve the problem caused by the low birthrate, the state is focusing on cash support, instead of creating a gender-equitable social atmosphere. According to Choi Gang-sik, Director of the Institute of East and West Studies, Yonsei University, "Policies that reduce women's time and opportunity costs may be more effective than cash support. We need to change the market working hours in a way that gives both men and women the opportunity to have a balanced work-family life."4) Many factors contribute to the low birthrate, so using economic incentives will not be effective in solving the problem. The stereotype that childcare is a mother's job takes away a woman's freedom of choice, which can lead to increased depression. Therefore, to prevent women from experiencing depression due to this problem, it is necessary to explore policy measures that can reduce this.
Breaking it down
The increase in female depression is due to sociocultural and structural factors, and sexist labor markets are likely to increase depression in women. To address this, the Women's Labor Law Support Center operates a Counseling Office of Equal Opportunity for Employment with government support to provide legal assistance and counseling to women. It provides support on a variety of employment-related gender discrimination issues, including recruitment, retirement, and issues related to sexual harassment and bullying. By doing so, it seems to have contributed to resolving the various difficulties faced by women in the labor market and created a sustainable working environment. Meanwhile, according to the Ministry of Employment and Labor's 2024 budget proposal, the budget for private counseling offices will be reduced from 1.15 billion won this year to 551 million won next year and will be substituted by having one counselor in each of the eight regional offices. The Ministry has cut the budget for counseling and has changed to providing services through relevant local governments. In this regard, Ahn Kim Hyun-jung, an activist at the Jeju Women's Association's Employment Equality Counseling Office, said, "If the labor office handles the case directly instead of a private counseling office, there is more likely to be a complaint about the handling method that follows a manual rather than counseling. Counseling is basically a way to listen to other people's stories, understand their feelings, find solutions, and move forward together."5) She emphasized the counseling office's ability to address grievances that lead to depression in women through psychological counseling. In other words, the government's new policy is likely to require additional efforts to implement the psychological counseling features that involve interaction with clients.
To address the sexist structures that contribute to women's depression, efforts are being made to build a safe society by tightening the laws related to crimes against women. In May, according to the "Status of Stalking Crimes" data submitted by National Assemblyman Chung Woo-taek, 9,726 victims were female, accounting for 85.28 percent of the total. This indicates that stalking crimes are mainly committed against women. To address this, in June, the National Assembly passed the Amendment to the Act on Punishment of Crime of Stalking, which allows the perpetrator to be punished even if the stalking victim does not agree to it. Previously, the crime of stalking could not be prosecuted without the victim's complaint and was generally considered a relatively minor offense or a matter for the parties to resolve between themselves. This amendment seems to recognize that the crime of stalking is serious and can lead to retaliation and even murder if the suspect is forced to settle. It also allows the court to place an electronic ankle bracelet on a stalking offender prior to sentencing if deemed necessary. Previously, such a device could only be attached to the convicted, which means that measures to protect the victim before the court ruling have been strengthened. In this regard, Han Min-kyung, a professor of public administration at the Korean National Police University, said, "Decisions on measures such as imprisonment and attachment of electronic devices need to be made prospectively and quickly, taking into account the risk of recidivism, so as not to create a gap in victim protection."6) Since orders to wear an electronic ankle bracelet is at the court's discretion, it means that this measure should be actively encouraged to fill the gaps in existing victim protections. The amendment is seen as a measure to protect women, who are the primary victims, from the social risks posed by stalking crimes.
Women's rights, protected through policy, contribute to social and structural gender equality, and furthermore to the solution of depression in women. In accordance with Article 42 of the Government Organization Act, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family is responsible for establishing women's policies with the goal of improving the status of women, including promoting their rights, and conducts work related to youth and families. Among the institution's gender equality policies are the Women's New Work Center and the Online Career Development Dream Center for women's career development. However, there is a limitation in that it only targets women whose careers have been interrupted due to childbirth, pregnancy, and marriage. In this regard, one of the women's organizations, the 1366 Hotline Center, provides a 24/7 emergency call service to counsel on various violent acts against women such as domestic violence, prostitution, and others to ensure that women in crisis are offered support. It seems to complement the government's limited women's policies, providing counseling and assistance to a wide range of women. Kang Eun-young, director of the 1366 Hotline Center in Gyeongbuk, said "Many of our clients and their families are experiencing mental health issues such as depression, lethargy, panic disorder, and sleep disorders. Our center is helping them get out of the crisis with 24/7 counseling, emergency protection, field trips, and consultations."7) This illustrates the reality that women exposed to violence suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, and the possibility that women at risk of depression can get the help they need through the collaborative system established by the organization. To address the socially structured problem of female depression, it seems necessary that governments implement policies to create a gender-equitable society, which means that there are limits to singling out women as the agents of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting.
A "better society" as medicine
In recent years, the number of people suffering from depression has been on the rise, especially among women. It not only causes psychological changes, but also adversely affects physical health. The reasons for this increase in female depression stem from socially structured sexism. The labor market, crime, and women's policies are constantly evolving for women's rights, but there are still limitations. A variety of women's policies are needed to address sexist structures.
1) Seo Han-gi, "Depression Hits 1 million...with Most Women in Their 20s", YONHAP NEWS AGENCY, October 3, 2023
2) Lim Jae-woo, ""Women Are Naturally Depressed?...It's a Social Disease"", The Hankyoreh, May 4, 2021
3) Choi Seok-jin, "[Room N, The Society That Made the Devil (4)] Legislation Reflecting the Characteristics of Digital Sex Crimes - Consistent Law Enforcement Needed", The Asia Business Daily, March 2, 2023
4) Oh Jin-song, ""Low Birthrate Policy to Reduce Women's Parenting Time Is More Effective Than Cash Assistance"", Yonhap News Agency, October 25, 2023
5) Lee Soo-jin, "Abolishing the 24-year-old 'Employment Equality Counseling Office'... "Don't take away the last bastion of women workers"", THE WOMEN'S NEWS, September 25, 2023
6) Seo Min-ji, "Stalking Penalties Tightened, but Perpetrators Poorly Separated", The financial news, July 25, 2023
7) Jeon Young-su, "Beyond Crisis to Hope for Women 1366 Gyeongbuk Center", Kimcheon Newspaper, November 15, 2022
Kang Kim Hyojung / Woman Section Editor
Lee Han Jiwon / Woman Section Editor