South Korea’s failure to take mental illness seriously is taking its toll on the impressionable minds of young K-pop stars.
Speaking as a person who listens to K-pop, at first, you don’t really think too much about what’s going on behind the scenes with your favorite singers. Once you do a bit of digging and are years into listening to the music and following your favorite groups, it becomes clear how troubling and disheartening the business can really be. Idols have extremely tight schedules that are set for them from the moment they wake to the moment they sleep. They must continue training long after their trainee days and follow strict diets that could be harmful to their health — BTS’ Jimin said that at one point he was only eating once every 10 days. After this aired on the Korean celebrity cooking show, Please Take Care of My Refrigerator, fans took to social media with the hashtag #JiminYouArePerfect and made fan videos to show their concern for his pleasing his audience at the expense of his own health.
Korean and international fans alike flock to entertainment forums such as Soompi and Koreaboo to voice their opinions on what idols must go through. We talk about their training schedules, their health, and our unease when an idol is hurt either physically or emotionally — and I’m no different, being a member of a K-pop Facebook fan group. There are fans who are genuinely concerned with the well-being of their favorite K-pop stars, and with the recent suicide of Jonghyun shaking fans to the core, audiences are becoming more aware of stress and mental illness in South Korea and are starting to speak more about mental health within the business.
On December 18th, 2017, Kim Jong-hyun (Jonghyun) was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning in his apartment in Cheongdam-dong, Seoul, South Korea. When word got out about the former SHINee member’s death, fans and Korean celebrities grieved the loss of this talented, young entertainer. Fans of Linkin Park reached out to fans of SHINee via Reddit, consoling them and relating to their loss, having gone through the suicide of Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington only months prior. It’s no surprise that having your every move documented as a celebrity is stressful, but what can make the experience worse is the lack of access to help when these idols are met with anxiety and depression. Although circumstances of how mental health is handled are highly different within the United States than in South Korea, what they have in common is how depression eats away at the person who’s experiencing it, and the sense of uselessness, constant sadness, and uncertainty that can accompany mental illness for celebrity and citizen alike, no matter the location or social class.
A former idol by the name of Park Sang Hee from S.O.S., a first-generation group — the designation given to K-pop stars from the 1992–2002 originating era of the genre — explains that being an idol isn’t easy. She states that:
“The hardest thing about being a celebrity is that it’s a job where you have to constantly show your good side. That leads to not being able to talk to anyone and thinking that you can overcome the problems yourself, believing that you are strong enough. This can lead to such celebrities being trapped in this disease called depression. This is why I believe so many top stars in the industry fall into depression.”
She mentions that being in the sort of business where you must “always show your good side,” can give people self-confidence issues, and idols who are already at the top become stressed from competition. K-pop idols start training at a fairly young age, and the ones who do succeed in the business end up in contracts with companies that keep them on tight and busy schedules, telling them what they can and cannot do in their personal lives, and who they can or cannot date.
When it comes to the mental health of these entertainers, they are on their own. South Korea doesn’t take mental health seriously. In Jonghyun’s suicide letter, he revealed that, while he had a good home life, it was the stress of being an idol and the fear of not being good enough that caused him to take his own life. His doctor did not help him with his despondency, blaming Jonghyun’s depression on his personality. In South Korea, when mental illness is brought up, the subject is shoved aside. South Koreans do not go to therapy, not only out of fear that their records won’t remain confidential, but also out of fear of being stigmatized. Instead, they bear the weight of it and “get over it.” South Koreans are seen as weak or crazy if they have any mental health issues, and with negligence comes consequences, as South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any developed country.
So what do we do to change this? It begins with changing the stigma of mental illness. Contrary to the belief of many, mental illness is not something that can be brushed aside or that will go away if ignored. When someone has any type of mental illness, proper help and patience is a must in order to aid them in either coping and living with mental illness, or in curing it completely, if possible. South Korea must take this into consideration for all of its citizens. If proper aid is made readily available, South Koreans will be able to handle mental illness with more confidence; idols and actors can manage their anxiety and depression; and fans will no longer wake up to the news of their favorite idols taking their own lives (as with the cases of Jonghyun and Jeon Tae Soo) or attempting to (as happened with the recent attempt by Choi Seung-hyun, a.k.a. T.O.P.). When a proper understanding of how to help patients and loved ones exists, a healthier community can strive forward together instead of leaving others behind.