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South Korean ferry victims' families ask, 'How are we going to live now?'

By Kyung Lah, CNN
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun April 20, 2014
  • Parents of students missing from the sunken ferry are grieving, desperate
  • The students' vice principal killed himself; some fear others may do the same
  • South Korea has a high suicide rate compared to other countries
  • Mental health workers say no family members sought counseling near ferry site

(CNN) -- The grief of any parent who loses a child is unimaginable. But that pain is amplified now in South Korea, due to the uncertainty over the fate of hundreds -- many of them children on a school field trip -- on a sunken ferry and how this east Asian nation's culture copes with such heartache.

For proof, one need look no further than hospital beds where some parents are hooked up to IVs because their sorrow is so great that they have refused to eat.

Some say they don't want to live.

Families' frustration: 'Nothing is changing'

"If I don't have my younger child, I want to jump in the sea," one woman said. "Thinking about my child in the sea, how can I, as a parent, eat or drink. I hate myself for this."

Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
South Korean ferry sinks
Photos: South Korean ferry sinks Photos: South Korean ferry sinks
Bodies recovered from South Korea ferry
S. Korea ferry captain defends actions
Agony for waiting South Korean families

In South Korea, suicide is a real threat.

It has the highest suicide rate among the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Some point to South Korea's ultra-competitive society or an unwillingness to accept failure as factors that contribute to this reality.

Kin give out DNA

It is a culture where shame carries a heavy burden, and where there is simply a societal acceptance of suicide.

Officials have made mental health workers available to the families, but despite the enormity of the tragedy, they find themselves not busy.

"No one came to us for counseling. The families don't care about their safety or well-being," said Han Kee Rae, a psychology volunteer.

Counselors hope more people will come for help, especially in light of the high number of suicides in the country.

There are fears that some may follow the example of Kang Min Kyu, the vice principal of Seoul's Ansan Danwon High School.

The 52-year-old Kyu was among the first to be rescued from the sinking ship.

Then, two days later, he was found hanging from a tree.

Police said he used a belt to apparently hang himself from a tree near a gymnasium in Jindo, where the distraught relatives of missing passengers have been camping out.

In a note, Kang wrote that the field trip had been his idea and that the deaths of the students were his fault.

His suicide is hardly the first, nor the most high-profile, in recent memory in South Korea.

Former President Roh Moo Hyun jumped to his death in 2009 in the wake of a financial scandal. And Hyundai Group Chairman Chung Mong Hun leaped from a building in the midst of a corruption investigation in 2003, ending his life.

Wherever it leads, the despair was palpable at the site where grieving family members of the capsized ferry's passengers have been gathering.

For some, the sadness is mixed with anger. And desperation abounds.

As one woman, during a briefing by maritime officials, shouted: "How are we going to live now?"

Families protest over rescue operation

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