The true definition of wealth is not society’s definition of wealth. When society discusses success and wealth it is overwhelmingly often within a singular focus that revolves around material success and consumerism. The more one consumes and the more luxury items one owns, the more society reinforces the behavior and the perception that one is “winning” and “successful.” However, neglect of the other two key pillars of wealth, physical and mental wealth has created a growing epidemic of suicide in developed nations around the world in recent years. In my opinion, any true definition of wealth will also include physical wealth and mental wealth. For example, in the United States, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, in 2017, 47,173 Americans committed suicide and another 1.4M Americans attempted suicide but were unsuccessful. In addition, according to data collected by the World Bank, between, 2000 and 2018, the rate of suicide increased in the US by a whopping 47% from 10.4 to 15.3 per 100,000 people. Perhaps most disturbing, however is that suicide was the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 35 and 54. Another nation with an alarmingly high rate of suicide is South Korea, with a suicide rate of 26.90 per 100,000 people in 2018. Though increasing suicide rates around the world in the past decade are often attributed to economic struggles as Central Banker currency wars have devastated the purchasing power of citizens’ savings accounts, the fact that suicide rates tend to be highest among those under 35 and not among the elderly in the United States and South Korea tend to point to other factors besides just economic struggles as creating an explosive and very troubling rate of suicide around the world.
In South Korea, in the past decade, there has been a slew of suicide among Korean actors and pop stars which would buttress the hypothesis that there are other factors outside of economics contributing to the increase of suicide in developed nations. Among the long list of famous celebrities that have killed themselves in South Korea are Lee Eun Joo, UNee, Jeong Da Bin, Daul Kim, Kim Jonghyun, and most recently Sulli of the K-Pop band f(x), with most being under the age of 30 and most still in their twenties when they took their lives. In some cases, like with actress Jang Ja Yeon, her alleged suicide has been speculated to have been a murder, as she had named, in a written document, 31 powerful and well-known executives in the Korean film industry, including presidents of large media corporations, that had perpetually sexually harassed her and forced her into performing numerous sexual favors for high-ranking South Korean entertainment executives. In fact, the behavior of Korean entertainment executives detailed in the document she compiled before her death was so repugnant that it made the Korean executives counterpart in America, Harvey Weinstein, appear to be a saint in comparison. So the “gatekeeper” culture, to which pop star Jessie Reyez infamously exposed in her short film here, in which she called out JayZ and Beyonce music producer Detail for his unwanted solicitation of sexual favors in return for stardom, is not just a key pillar of the entertainment industry in South Korea, but in every nation with a thriving entertainment industry.
However, South Korean pop stars and actresses do not make the types of massive incomes as do Hollywood stars, and many would be surprised to learn that often their base salaries with their entertainment firm only averaged around $50,000 or $60,000 per year. Among the top reasons that Korean celebrities often cited regarding suicidal thoughts were “unprotected privacy, malicious comments” and given the extremely exploitative nature between Korean entertainment firms and their stars, unsurprisingly also “unstable incomes and anxiety about the future.” Though I would think that most Korean celebrities might be able to make multiples of the salaries they received from their management firms from endorsements, given the extremely controlling clauses that are written into the contracts of most Korean celebrities, I would not be surprised if Korean entertainment executives grabbed the lion’s share of all endorsement monies as well from their clients as a result of confining clauses written into their contracts. Most American actresses will earn the entire cumulative earnings of Korean stars in one film that Korean actresses earn over their entire career. For example, the net worth of Choi Ji Woo’s, one of Korea’s most beloved and well-known actresses, was estimated to only be US$500,000 to US$1M after decades of work at age 42.
Thus, even though prominent Western celebrities also have a long prominent list of names among those that committed suicide, including Health Ledger, Robin Williams, Amy Winehouse, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Avicii, financial worries are typically not on their list of reasons for committing suicide. For example, Avicii, a well-known Swedish DJ, typically charge $500,000 per show at the height of his fame and had an estimated net worth estimated at over $50M when he committed suicide, and of course the actors on the above list routinely were paid millions of dollars per film. This type of financial security is simply unattainable in the South Korean entertainment industry given the industry standard extreme levels of exploitative contracts between celebrities and their management firms. Consequently, mental health issues remain a large reason for the growing rates of suicide around the world. In 2017, the US Centers for Disease Control reported that 90% of all Americans that committed suicide that year had diagnosable mental health disorders.
Consequently, underneath the surface of the global suicide epidemic, due to our collective neglect of the true definition of wealth, is an epidemic of mental health disorders, of which I believe the dopamine feedback loops of social media apps are a huge contributor. Today, due to the proliferation of daily life of young adults spent in the virtual world versus the real world, when young adults have struggles in real life, they often feel as if they have no one they can turn to for help, as the virtual world does not lend itself to the development of real relationships and friends that will be there for someone through thick and thin. This is why a true definition of wealth must always also include an abundance of mental wealth. For example, before the rise of social media, most studies conducted about friendship in developed nations, whether in the US or UK, stated that most people self-reported having about five to eight close friends, a more than adequate circle of friends to lean on in times of need. However, in 2018, a study conducted by US insurance company Cigna reported that the 5 to 8 close friends had decreased to just 2 to 5 close friends. Even though I believe that even 2 to 5 close friends should still be an adequate number to pull a person through a particularly dark time in life, social media contributes to a lack of communication in the real world because often people that are suffering from depression continue to post short videos and shiny, happy photos on social media accounts, thereby fooling their friends into believing there is no need to check up on them and to absolutely ignore their responsibility as a friend that they would otherwise never have ignored without any social media. However, glancing at a social media post or a few photos as the basis for understanding a friend’s mental state is a horrible substitute for an actual call and meeting in real life.
Thus, time and time again, we hear friends that have neglected their role as a friend express shock about a friend’s suicide. In the case of 20-year old Korean model Daul Kim, her friends exemplified my aforementioned point of the societal degeneration imposed by social media growth. Her friends stated that even though they saw her frequently at castings and jobs, she always seemed happy, and that this impression of her state of happiness was supported by all her social media postings. However, I believe that had they not been exposed to a continual stream of smiling and laughing photos and videos that they would have asked her how she was doing when they saw her in real life, instead of never asking her at all because of the assumption that all was great in her life. In other words, the illusion created by social media of strong mental health, especially since very few people post about struggles on social media but only paint a fake picture about a perfect life absent of any setbacks to the rest of the world, decreases the chance that friends will ever ask other friends about their mental health when they see one another in real life. And this is a very harmful consequence of living in a virtual world.
Thus, in the end, I believe that the growing epidemic of suicide around the world is the consequence of an epidemic of poor mental health in the midst of an epidemic of a loss of real human connection around the world. These conditions would not be happening if we all valued not society’s definition of wealth, but the true definition of wealth. Furthermore, I firmly believe that the epidemic of poor mental health can be traced to poor parenting skills, as I observe parents increasingly “parenting” their very young kids, often under the age of four, by giving them an iPad or smartphone to stare at for hours instead of actually interacting with them. And because parents rarely teach their kids how to determine their own self-worth or to have a strong sense of self, young kids grow up determining their value based upon the comments of complete strangers on social media, which tragically result in young adults taking their own lives because of their inability to properly psychologically cope with the enormous levels of hate that is spewed by strangers on social media. Instead of just laughing off such hateful comments as irrelevant, as should happen if their parents ever taught them that their self-worth comes from their own belief in themselves and not the misguided and often spiteful beliefs of strangers, often young adults internalize hateful comments on social media from strangers that only do so out of feelings of their own inadequacy, and sometimes tragically take their own lives. Cyberbullying laws is not the answer to the epidemic of suicides, but better parenting, more engaged parenting, teaching young children to embrace struggle and to build their feelings of self-worth, and encouraging young adults to limit their time in the cyberworld to half an hour a day would yield far better results to decreasing the rates of suicide around the world.
Consequently, I will leave you with one task to complete today. If you are someone that has neglected a good friend and believes you know how they are doing because you follow their social media account, if you are truly sincere and value your friendship, then I urge you to pick up the phone and call, not text, this person. And do this today, not tomorrow, or next week.
To watch two accompanying videos to this article about the true definition of wealth click on the videos below: