“For most, if not all, North Korean defectors, the struggle for survival is not over once they cross the border. Though the defectors are able to leave North Korea, they continue to face numerous struggles physically, emotionally, and psychologically as they attempt to adapt to a vastly different lifestyle in South Korea, China, and other countries. According to numerous studies, it seems that the successful acculturation of these refugees to a new environment is closely related to their mental health (Jeon et. al, 2005). Particularly, many of the North Korean refugees residing in South Korea appear to suffer from psychiatric disorders such as depression, PTSD, and anxiety (Jeon et. al, 2009).
In order to better understand the prevalence of mental health disorders amongst this specific NK refugee population, it is critical to analyze the issue from a biosocial perspective. A biosocial analysis is one that examines both the biological aspects and the social aspects of a disease or illness. Such an analysis is important due to the fact that many illnesses are not merely biologically determined, but are determined by social, political, economical and historical processes (Farmer et.al, 2013). Thus, from taking a biosocial perspective on this issue, it is ultimately revealed that poverty, a lack of social networks, and unemployment are significant contributors to the prevalence of mental health disorders, more specifically PTSD, in this refugee population.”
This excerpt is taken from the introduction of my final 15-page research paper that I wrote for the course SW25–Case Studies in Global Health: A Biosocial Perspective.(As an aside, I highly recommend the course to anyone interested in learning about global health. Fascinating lectures, awesome and highly respected TFs/professors, and a pretty decent workload!) Writing this paper was indeed challenging, but it was also very eye-opening in many ways as I was able to more closely examine some of the underlying social causes that contribute greatly to the prevalence of mental health disorders of North Korean refugees residing in South Korea. I was also able to explore the role of stigma played in exacerbating the effects of PTSD amongst the refugees.
Now, I won’t share the whole analysis on this blog post because it’ll put most of you all to sleep, but what I will do is share some of the interesting facts that I came across when writing my paper on how PTSD is related to poverty/unemployment/lack of social networks in this particular NK refugee population. Take a look below:
- Numerous studies revealed that economic difficulties are associated with a “higher risk of mental disorders among refugees”(Kim et. al, 2011).
-A study on the prevalence and correlates of North Korean refugees who have resided in South Korea for at least over a year states that “those with family incomes below 1 million won were 6.092 times…more likely to report depressive symptoms than were those with family incomes greater than 1.5 million won”(Jeon et. al, 2009).
-One interesting point is that the feelings of poverty and helplessness are further exacerbated by the fact that living in a capitalist society exposed the refugees to the phenomenon of socioeconomic inequality. The refugees “feel a great sense of incongruity” because for the first time, they see how differences in wealth lead to different social statuses and lifestyles amongst the people (Suh, 2002).
-A study conducted specifically on female North Korean immigrants stated that refugees who were unemployed or unable to work were “four times more likely to develop PTSD compared to other North Korean immigrants who were workers, students, or housekeepers”(Youm et. al, 2011).
-A study revealed how “in addition to the physical trauma (rape and unexpected sick- ness), the trauma related to human relationships or social stress, such as trauma related to family members (worry about missing family members who had gone in search of food), played an important role in the development of PTSD”(Jeon et. al, 2005).
-Some North Korean defectors leave their family behind when choosing to escape, and subsequently feel immense guilt for their actions. One study revealed that this anguish causes a number of psychological problems such as persistent anxiety, depression, insomnia, excessive alcohol drinking, and physical pain in the defectors (Jeon, 2000).
-A study on female NK immigrants and the prevalence of PTSD among them revealed how having a larger social network made refugees less likely to be affected by PTSD (Youm et. al, 2011).
If you’re interested in learning more, I suggest reading up on South Korean researcher/professor Woo Taek Jeon’s work, as he has been researching NK refugees residing in South Korea for quite some time now. Fun fact: He’s currently working with one of HRiNK’s alums, Stephanie Choi, this year!
References are listed below:
Byungkyu L., Youm, Y. (2011) Social Network Effects on Post – Traumatic Stress Disorder in Female North Korean Immigrants. Journal of Preventative Medicine and Public Health. 44(5), 191-200.
Farmer, P. (2010). Partner to the Poor. University of California Press. Chapter 16: On Suffering and Social Violence.
Jeon, B.H., Kim, M.D., Hong, S.C., Kim, N.R., Lee, C.I., Kwak, Y.S., Park, J.H., Chung, J.H., Chong, H.N., Jwa, E.K., Bae, M.H., Kim, S.H., Yoo, B. , Lee, J.H., Hyun, M.Y., Yang, M.J., Kim, D.S. (2009). Prevalence and Correlates of Depressive Symptoms Among North Korean Defectors Living in South Korea for More Than One Year. Psychiatry Investigation. 6(3), 122-130.
Jeon, W.T. (2000). Issues and Problems of Adaptation of North Korean Defectors to South Korean Society-An In-depth interview study with 32 defectors. Yonsei Medical Journal. 41(3), 362-371.
Jeon, W.T., Hong, C.H., Lee, C.H., Kim, D.K. , Han, M.Y., Min, S.K. (2005). Correlation Between Traumatic Events and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Among North Korean Defectors in South Korea. Journal of Traumatic Stress.18(2), 147-154.
Kim, Hyo Hyun, et al. Prevalence and Correlates of Psychiatric Symptoms in North Korean Defectors. Psychiatry investigation 8.3 (2011): 179-185.
Suh, J.J. . (2002). North korean defectors: their adaptation and resettlement.East Asian Review, 14(3), 67-8.