Thursday, June 11, 2009

You Crazy

A few posts back, I wrote about the ENORMOUS suicide rate here in South Korea. One of the factors that contributes to the suicide rate, that I chose not to address at the time to keep the post from getting out of control, is the stigma with mental illness in Asia. In our classes because we are silly with our students, we often will jokingly call students "crazy." It is a word that all of the children know, even if they can't answer the question, "how old are you?" they probably understand the word "crazy." It is a word that we use loosely to describe many different behaviors, but never in a derogatory or purposefully hurtful way. However, a couple of months ago, we were asked to refrain from using the word to refer to the children as it is coupled with mental illness, which is seen as unacceptable in their culture. In my mind, probably because I come from a Western culture the words "crazy" and "mental illness" are not compartmentalized together. I hadn't even thought of the two words going hand in hand, but in Korea, they do and they try with all their might to hide any disabilities they might suffer from. The family is seen as at fault for having passed down faulty genes if there are any mental disabilities.

The U.S. Surgeon General in 1999 said, "Powerful and pervasive, stigma prevents people from acknowledging their own mental health problems, much less disclosing them to others.'' In Korea, most people with a mental illness are reluctant to talk about it due to the stigma associated with it. The afflicted person feels a sense of isolation as they maintain a facade of happiness in their daily interactions.

Seeking help outside the family, Kim said, "lets people know there is a defect in the gene," which could jeopardize the marriage prospects of siblings and other relatives. That belief, he said, was especially strong in Korea, where matchmakers were widely used.

"I've worked with families where the parents encouraged marriage almost as a cure for mental illness," said San Francisco's Lu.

(The Washington Post)

"Asians don't view it as a sickness or an illness, but as a family curse," said Esther Chung, a minister and part-time counselor at the Korean Family Counseling and Research Center in Vienna. "They try to take care of it themselves." (The Korea Times)

I mention this now, not because I have dealt with mental illness recently, but children with issues that go undiagnosed or unrecognized. And it isn't just mental illness that have stigmas; flaws, any flaws have stigmas. I understand this, I honestly do. I have flaws. You have flaws, yes you, my pretty little reader you. But it isn't something most of us flaunt. Most of my flaws I try to sweep under the blanket. I feel that I am a pretty honest person and I will confront my flaws and willingly admit to them, but they aren't something of which I am proud. I understand this feeling of wanting to hide issues from the rest of the world when often what we see is a facade of a perfectly happy family making us feel isolated in our own imperfections. We know that others have problems, but at least for me, it doesn't keep me from feeling at least a little bit of jealousy.

So when I talk about issues and flaws, I don't mean to say that they must be laid out for any and all to view and trample, but they must not be hidden away in shame. When these issues effect others in a negative way, they need to be addressed. We have two rival schools this week, and this week especially the children are violent. Just today, I had a boy punch another boy in the face. He looked angry as he was throwing his fist into the other boy's eye and for a few seconds following the punch, but as it was his friend, his face changed to from anger to that of regret and he didn't leave the other boy's side for the next hour after apologizing multiple times. I sent them to the front desk to work it out as it is difficult enough to speak another language but to do it when emotionally charged is nearly impossible.

Another girl in our class was listed on the "special needs list." When we first started receiving the special needs list, I was a bit confused because it would list things like; annoys other children, is violent, father is a gangster (seriously true), has the measles, has tonsillitis. I was expecting things like; has a learning disability, has difficulty concentrating in class etc. I have never once seen "has a learning disability" when it is obvious that some of these children do. This sweet little girl in our class is listed as "doesn't get along with friends," which equals "has no friends as has no social skills." And she is often spaced out, staring out into nothing. The kids tease her, but she has so far showed no signs of reactionary emotion. And she never makes any attempts to interact. She is such a sweet little girl and all I want to do is go up and give her a great big bear hug, but that wont solve her issues, and she may not even like being hugged. There is something wrong with her, that much is obvious, but I don't know if the cause is being treated or addressed as she is only my student for a week and I don't know her life history.

One week we had a girl who was obviously mentally disabled. She couldn't answer questions in English and I don't know how much Korean she spoke. She would make noises and throw her hands around. The rest of the school just ignored her and went on with their merry making except for one girl who seemed to be her friend and care-taker. After having these two girls in my class, I had many issues with this scenario. A) what was this girl doing at SNET in the first place when she obviously wouldn't be able to learn in this type of fast paced evironment. Why did her parents send her? B) Why was she sent without a proper care-giver? If in fact her parents or the school thought she would benefit or enjoy SNET, why did they send her without any helpers, when she wasn't able to cope on her own? C) Why was it allowed that another little girl was to take the position of care-taker. I understand that they were friends, probably so because the girl taking care of the mentally challeged girl, covering her mouth when she yelled out in class, keeping her from swinging her arms about, guiding her to the next class, also seemed to be missing some marbles, and yet they let the responsibilty fall on this little girl's shoulders. She wasn't able to participate in the games because she had to watch over her friend. I don't imagine and I would hope that in the USA this situation would not have been acceptable nor allowed.

It's an interesting world over here. Different than any other I have experienced. I am always learning, but sometimes it feels as if I am wandering around blind-folded through a maze. Or maybe I am the crazy one!


Cairo Typ0 said...

Great post. I find the difference between what you are describing where no one wants to admit a child has a learning disability to N.America where parents seem so willing to claim such things to explain away any behavioral problems to be very interesting.

BPOTW said...

You bring us quite an interesting outlook to South Korea! Thanks for sharing with us.

Anonymous said...

I always learn something on your blog and find your experiences fascinating.

This post, however, is so sad. Thanks for sharing your perspective.