It has been a sad and gruesome semester at South Korea’s most prestigious university, and with final exams beginning Monday the school is still reeling from the recent suicides of four students and a popular professor. Academic pressures can be ferocious at the university, the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, known as Kaist, and anxious school psychologists have expanded their counseling services since the suicides. The school president also rescinded a controversial policy that humiliated many students by charging them extra tuition if their grades dipped. After the last of the student deaths, on April 7, the Kaist student council issued an impassioned statement that said “a purple gust of wind” had blown through campus.
“Day after day we are cornered into an unrelenting competition that smothers and suffocates us,” the council said. “We couldn’t even spare 30 minutes for our troubled classmates because of all our homework. “We no longer have the ability to laugh freely.” Young people in South Korea are a chronically unhappy group. A recent survey found them to be — for the third year in a row — the unhappiest subset among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Education Ministry in Seoul said 146 students committed suicide last year, including 53 in junior high and 3 in elementary school.
Psychologists at the university said very few students had sought counseling in recent days because of the time crunch brought on by finals. Ironically, during this period of maximum stress, therapists were handling only a handful of cases, mostly for anxiety. “Remember that the students here are still very young and they haven’t had much experience with unpredictable situations,” said Kim Mi-hee, a staff psychologist at the campus counseling center, who estimated that about 10 percent of Kaist students had come to the center for help. “To deal with problems they tend to lock into rumination mode. “But they’re so smart and so bright, they actually cope with stress pretty well. They have great capabilities of insight, so once they do get treatment, it can go pretty fast.”