The government is rolling out emergency measures to assist individuals with serious mental illnesses, in light of recent incidents where mentally ill suspects were implicated in violent crimes.
A policy framework outlined by the Ministry of Health and Welfare on Wednesday includes expansion of mental health care infrastructure to make diagnosis and treatment more accessible, increased medical subsidies for low-income patients and operation of intensive care system for those more severely ill. To allow prompt and systematic response to mental health emergency cases, 24-hour mental health emergency response teams will be stationed at local mental health welfare institutes throughout the country.
Health and Welfare Minister Park Neung-hoo speaks during a press briefing Wednesday at Central Government Complex in Jongno-gu, Seoul. (The Ministry of Health and Welfare)
About 500,000 people, or 1 percent of the population, suffer from serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and recurrent depression, according to the ministry’s health care policy bureau. Of those, 77,000 are hospitalized at medical institutions or care centers and 92,000 are registered with local mental health welfare or psychiatric rehabilitation programs. The remaining 330,000, who have access to neither treatment nor care, are the primary target of the latest policy, said the bureau’s head, Kwon Joon-wook.
The Health and Welfare Ministry noted calls for emergency measures have been increasing since the April 17 arson-murder in Jinju, South Gyeongsang Province. In the incident, a 42-year-old man set an apartment building on fire and attacked residents with a knife as they fled, killing five and injuring 13, according to the Jinju police.
An ensuing investigation revealed that the suspect, Ahn In-deuk, had a history of receiving treatment for schizophrenia on 68 occasions between January 2011 and July 2016.
If the suspect is able to prove he was psychotic at the time of the act, he is eligible for a lighter sentence under the criminal act. In response to petitions demanding tougher penalties for heinous crimes committed by mentally ill offenders, the Blue House said in March that the police and the courts were “adopting stricter standards” in sentencing such cases.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo emphasized during the briefing that such incidents often result from negligence and lack of preventive measures, saying “through early detection and treatment, and with constant care, (people living with mental illness) are able to integrate into society.” He cautioned against stigmatizing mental illness, promising that the ministry intends to build an inclusive and tolerant society for those who struggle with mental health issues.
On the lack of mental health funding, Park said the budget administrators have been “cooperative in policy drafting,” recognizing the growing public alarm. He added that next year’s budget for the policy has been secured, and that the ministry would work to see a long-term budget bill passed at the National Assembly.
The minister also recognized that the policies outlined are still in the process of being made more concrete and specific, and added that a more detailed policy blueprint will be announced in the coming months.
By Kim Arin (firstname.lastname@example.org