Why is the Korean American suicide rate so high? It's cultural, say mental health experts

The story was co-published with The Korea Daily as part of the 2024 Ethnic Media Collaborative, Healing California.

Mental health professionals emphasize two critical factors: "culture" and "environment" when discussing the high suicide rate of Korean Americans. 

From 2018 to 2023, 348 Korean-Americans lost their lives to suicide in California. The Korean American suicide rate surpasses that for all Asians and all residents in the state.

Cultural taboos surrounding mental health, the weight of academic and professional expectations, and a sense of isolation from straddling two different cultures contribute to the challenges faced by many Korean Americans.

Korea Daily analyzed suicide statistics for Korean Americans, relying on data from 2011 onwards from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (CDMH), the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The following trends emerged.

The nationwide suicide rate (per 100,000) among Korean immigrants rose sharply from 10.3 in 2011 to 15.7 in 2022, an increase of 52%. In comparison, the overall suicide rate in the United States increased from 12.3 in 2011 to 14.4 in 2022, an increase of 17%.

Since 2018 to 2021, the Korean suicide rate in California has been double the rate of suicides among California Asians. In 2022, the suicide rate saw a slight decrease, yet it remains significantly higher than the Asian average.

Suicide rate table


California urgently needs to work towards preventing future tragedies and supporting those in need in the Korean American community.

In Los Angeles County, where close to a quarter of a million of people of Korean descent live, the gap widens: In 2022, the suicide rate among Korean Americans in the county stood at approximately 12.3 per 100,000 individuals, contrasting with the rate of 6.3 among all Asian populations in the same region.

In 2022, 29 Korean-Americans took their own lives in LA County, according to the CDC Provisional Mortality Statistics. The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (LACDMH) and mental health experts have called for greater awareness of the crisis. 

Why is the Korean immigrant suicide rate particularly high in the United States? Mental health professionals emphasize two critical factors: "culture" and "environment." According to the LACDMH, a significant proportion of Korean suicides are first-generation immigrants or 1.5-generation immigrants. 

Justin Choi, former president of the Korean American Psychological Association, remarked: "The suicide rate among Korean immigrants has been closely following the statistics in Korea for a long time. There is a unique cultural and psychological connection maintained even across the Pacific."

South Korea has maintained the infamous title of the world's leading country in suicide for the past 20 years. In 2022, South Korea's suicide rate of 25.2 deaths per 100 thousand population was the highest among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Mental health professionals attribute the rise of Korean immigrant suicide issues to cultural characteristics specific to Korea, such as concepts of success, a fierce competitive spirit, fear of economic failure, an emphasis on saving face, the prejudice and inadequate handling of mental illness (such as depression), and the prevalence of "hwabyeong" (a unique Korean syndrome related to mental health issues).

According to a mental health survey conducted by Korea Daily within the Korean community, 38% of respondents cited economic problems as the primary reason for considering suicidal thoughts, followed by mental health issues (34%), loneliness, isolation (34%), family conflicts (32%), and personal relationships or ruptures (11%).


Survey Results

The results of a survey conducted by the Korea Daily

Courtesy Korea Daily


"Koreans and Korean immigrants place a high cultural value on competition and achievement, while also retaining a strong culture of saving face to avoid humiliation. These two cultural attributes, when applied in times of personal crisis, could form a very perilous cocktail emotionally," said Jaewon Kim, a mental health training coordinator at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Grace Park, Clinic Service Manager at the Korean Youth and Community Center (KYCC), explains that Korean cultural values and views on mental health, including suicide, are deeply embedded in Korean society, transcending both national borders and generations. Korean parents, who come from Korea, pass on the pressure to strive for success and social advancement to their children born in the United States.


A version of this story was published in The Korea Daily on Feb 14, 2024

This Korea Daily project is supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and is part of “Healing California,” a yearlong Ethnic Media Collaborative reporting venture with print, online and broadcast outlets across California.