Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Sam from Bridgeton asks:
How does North Korean society view and handle the mentally ill? Are they discussed much? Is the general public knowledgeable about mental disorders? Is there a good psychiatric system?
There are many people with mental disorders in North Korea. But I never knew that you could see a psychiatrist before coming to South Korea. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of the word “psychiatrist” in North Korea. Neurologists exist in North Korea, but they treat disorders of the patient’s nervous system, not exactly the same as mental disorders. However, psychiatric wards exist in North Korea and they are called “No. 49 hospitals.” I’m not sure why they’re referred to as “No. 49 hospitals,” but that’s what people called them. These psychiatric wards are located deep within the mountains far away from neighborhoods. The mentally ill are locked up in those wards. I’m not sure how they’re looked after and who are in charge of the No. 49 Hospitals, but they didn’t seem related to general hospitals in any way.
Grownups said it’s usually smart people who become mentally ill. They are ambitious and talented people. But because they’re faced with numerous constraints and restrictions in North Korean society along the way to realizing their dreams, they become deeply frustrated and depressed. I’ve seen many people with mental disorders in my neighborhood and they were all smart and clever people before becoming mentally ill. Also, you don’t get sent to the psychiatric ward just because you suffer from mental disorders. For as long as I’ve known, North Korea does not send them to the psychiatric ward without the permission of their family. Most families refrain from sending their family members to psychiatric wards, mostly because of rumors that patients get beaten up and starved in the hospitals.
People who suffered from hallucinations or nervous breakdowns usually came from low-income households in North Korea
While in North Korea, I haven’t witnessed many cases of depression, but I have seen many people with mental disorders such as hallucinations and nervous breakdowns. It was often said in North Korea that the lack of nutrients cause these problems. People who suffered from hallucinations or nervous breakdowns usually came from low-income households in North Korea. When they started eating better, they got better. Thus, it was believed that if you’re well-fed, mental disorders such as hallucinations and nervous breakdowns go away. At least that’s what people in my hometown thought!
But people who become depressed due to domestic violence or affairs by their husbands are a different story. Counselors or psychotherapists do not exist in North Korea. Therefore, people who go through such problems resolve issues through the help of their families and relatives. But people with no close family members or friends to support them emotionally become extremely stressed out and eventually lose their minds. Since those people have no access to proper psychiatric treatment, many of them end up committing suicide or attempting to murder others out of stress. Whenever I unexpectedly ran into one of those people in my old neighborhood, I got spooked and I always tried to avoid them whenever possible. Some families decide to send their depressed family members to psychiatric wards after much thought. But most of them don’t get any better. Rather, they return home dejected and worse than before.
It was often said that psychiatrists beat up patients if they refuse to obey orders. Thus, by the time they come home, they have become passive people who know nothing but obeying orders and the demands of other people. When they’re told that they would be sent back to the psychiatric ward, they become startled and terrified. You can only guess how terrifying these psychiatric wards must have been! Since psychiatric wards do not have a good reputation among the people in North Korean society, people choose to keep their mentally ill family members within their house rather than sending them off to psychiatric wards. So, my answer to your question is: No, I don’t think North Korea has a good psychiatric system. I sincerely hope that the mentally ill in North Korea can receive the proper psychiatric treatment they deserve sooner than later!
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Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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