K-Pop Stars Reveal Their Own Struggles With Mental Illness
Earlier this year, the Korea Foundation reported that there are nearly 90 million Hallyu (Korean Wave) fans globally. Although K-pop is only a subset of what the term Hallyu encompasses, for many of the genre’s fans, this finding probably comes as no surprise. I mean, just look at these K-pop statistics! YouTube views, music sales, and follower counts aren’t the only things that matter when it comes to K-pop though.
One aspect of the K-pop scene that isn’t always considered is how K-pop stars manage their mental health. In fact, it’s taboo to discuss mental health in general in Korea. It’s important that we do talk about it though, especially in relation to K-pop artists, as psychological experts have noted that celebrities’ engagement in artistic activities and their inordinate amount of time spent under the scrutinizing gaze of the public eye make them particularly susceptible to depression.
In 2017, the suicide of Jonghyun from SHINee once again put the spotlight on mental illness within the K-pop industry, pointing out the many sources of pressure that celebrities face on a regular basis. When one considers these factors — success or lack thereof, competition, public criticism, and so on — it becomes clear that being a K-pop celebrity is not solely about receiving love from fans and performing on glitzy stages. Jonghyun once said in an interview that it was difficult for him to discuss his feelings for fear of being unfairly judged by the public and that he thought there wasn’t really anyone who wanted to know the real him. He likely was not alone in feeling like this either, as other celebrities face many of the same challenges he did.
Even though they are at an increased risk of mental illness, K-pop artists often have relatively limited options when it comes to properly addressing their mental health due to their high profiles and social stigma. Still, some K-pop celebrities have been very open about discussing mental health, with an ever-increasing number of stars beginning to disclose their own struggles with depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. Epik High’s Tablo (skip to 3:21 in the video above) and BTS’ Suga are especially well-known among K-pop fans for being advocates of mental health awareness and candidly discussing personal mental health issues over the years. Epik High’s work has often talked about issues of mental health, including their latest album “Sleepless In __________.” And in an interview with Yonhap News, later published in English by J-14, Suga went so far as to say, “Anxiety and loneliness seem to be with me for life. I put a lot of meaning on how I should work it out, but it seems like I have to work on it for my entire life.” Jiyeon of T-ara and longtime soloist Younha are just a couple of other celebrities who have opened up about their personal struggles with mental health in recent years too.
Unfortunately, Korean celebrities have also been known to show their own prejudices when it comes to mental illness. Last year, rapper San E criticized Womad and Megalia, online feminist communities infamous for their radical views and hatred of men, while performing on stage, declaring them not feminists but “a mental illness” (jump to 1:40 in the video below). Ironically, the year before, San E released a song and accompanying music video addressing mental health stigma, particularly as it relates to counseling and the use of medication to treat psychological problems. While he has attempted to shift people’s view of mental health and help them understand its significance through his art, using mental illness as part of a derisive attack on those criticizing him is less than admirable, to say the least.
Celebrities are not the only ones who struggle with talking about mental health, however, as stigma against mental illness is a pervasive part of Korean society that makes it hard for many — famous or not — to properly and freely discuss what it means to suffer from a mental illness. For many Koreans, mental health issues, as well as seeking professional help, are indicative of weakness, can become a permanent stain on one’s professional and personal record, and ultimately are not well understood. There are some signs that Korean society has been trying to overcome its barriers to mental health treatment though, such as through the establishment of the National Center for Mental Health in 2016.
That said, although the times are changing, Korea has consistently held the highest suicide rate among OECD countries for going on two decades, with an average of 40 people dying by suicide every day. In 2015, the National Health Insurance Service found that approximately 5 million adult Koreans have depression or are at high risk of depression, yet only 22.2 percent of those diagnosed with a mental illness have actually sought treatment. Moreover, a recent government study found that the vast majority of suicide victims had sought treatment not for mental health issues but for physical symptoms such as fatigue, poor concentration, abdominal pains, and headaches. Korea’s suicide rate has continually declined since 2010, but it remains a prominent issue in Korea nevertheless.
While we may never be able to know most, if any, of our favorite K-pop stars on a personal level, it’s critical that we don’t lose sight of the fact that they are all still human. Beneath the carefully crafted personas exist real people with their own dreams, desires, and problems. Like the rest of us, celebrities can feel isolated and hopeless. They can be hurt and left feeling defeated. They can even make mistakes. And yet the public’s general expectation of K-pop stars is that they always put their best, usually smiling, face forward.
When stars experience emotional difficulties, both the public and those close to them often are not privy to their struggles. In an interview with the BBC (shown above), Park Kyung of Block B explained that “celebrities have a hard time dealing with their emotions…. They don’t have many opportunities to express how they really feel, since their job requires them to hide their emotions.” On top of having limited access to treatment, celebrities also regularly find themselves carrying their burdens alone.
One K-pop artist’s manager said that despite their best efforts to protect artists from stress and potentially deeper mental health issues, it simply isn’t possible to shield them completely. For example, many artists have admitted to regularly reading online comments about themselves, even when it’s hard to imagine they could possibly have time to do so on top of their busy schedules. Though many of these comments may be positive and filled with love, RM of BTS once expressed just how damaging negative comments can be, saying, “I used to ponder upon a malicious comment written by a netizen in just five seconds with a fleeting thought of ‘I just don’t like this guy’ for the next five hours and five days.”
Erasing Korea’s stigma against openly discussing and properly addressing mental illness is no small task, and it is likely only part of what lies beneath K-pop celebrities’ struggles with mental health. After all, the K-pop industry itself serves as the breeding ground for many of the hardships that artists face, creating an intensely competitive, high-pressure environment before would-be celebrities are even afforded the opportunity to debut. Cheering on our favorite K-pop stars when they win an award or achieve some other milestone is great, but it’s just as important to show artists that their burdens don’t have to be theirs alone to bear and that we accept them for who they are as fellow human beings.
Are there any artists who have helped you through your own struggles? Feel free to share below. I’d love to hear your stories. Please leave any self-care tips you might have in the comments too!
If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, you can receive immediate help by visiting global resources such as iasp.info or by calling 1-800-273-8255 in the US. In Korea, you can reach LifeLine Korea at 1588-9191.
seheee is a software engineer by day and an avid K-pop concert-goer by night. You can find her on Twitter @_seheee.