Mental illness in K-pop: Learning from a music star’s apparent suicide

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Fans also should realize that these idols are just as human as you and I.

Disclaimer: I wrote this story in memory of Kim Jong-hyun because I’ve also had that feeling of depression and been told to “suck it up,” that I can’t be selfish. I am a huge fan of K-pop and I want to share the story of how two idols, Jong-hyun and Min Yoongi, have shared their mental health issues.

K-pop, a subculture of music that comes from South Korea, has a reputation of being a demanding business. 

K-pop groups typically consist of four to 15 members, including vocalists, dancers and rappers. Some of the biggest entertainment companies in K-pop are rumored to require artists to train for hours on end, to monitor their lives closely and to control their dating. The public and the companies expect much from the idols, such as keeping up appearances and being fashion icons.

Some idols have come out and shared their struggles with depression and anxiety. Yoongi, an underground rapper and one of K-pop’s biggest idols, expressed his struggles with social phobia and depression in August 2016 through a mixtape titled “Agust D.” 

"Behind every idol rapper who succeeds, there’s a weak self standing. It’s a little dangerous. I fall sometimes again into depression and compulsion,” Yoongi raps in Korean in a song titled “The Last.” “Sometimes I’m afraid of myself, thanks to my self-hatred and the depression that came to play again. … I was afraid of people, so I hid in the bathroom and stared at myself.” 

The entire track describes how his transition from an underground artist to K-pop idol put pressure on him and made him not recognize himself. In one song, he raps about going to a psychiatrist with his parents and them feeling like they didn’t know him anymore. 

In December 2017, idol Jong-hyun, a member of SHINee, died of an apparent suicide. 

Jong-hyun, a K-pop star, died last year in what authorities have called an apparent suicide. (Commonswikmedia.org by Pherospera) 

“I’m broken from the inside,” Jong-hyun, 27, wrote in a letter to a friend that was made public after his death. “Becoming famous was probably not my life. They tell me that's why I'm having a hard time… Why did I choose that? It's funny that I'm able to endure this much.” 

In an Instagram message posted after Jong-hyun’s death, close friend and K-pop idol Kim Tae-yeon wrote about their shared feelings of loneliness.

“I remember you telling me about how you wrote 'Lonely' with me in your thoughts,” Tae-yeon wrote, referring to a song they co-wrote and sang together. “We are very similar and alike. We know those feelings.” 

According to the Korea Herald, South Koreans tend to view mental illness as a taboo subject. Government statistics noted that one in four South Koreans suffered from a mental health disorder but only one in 10 pursue professional help, according to the 2017 article.

The suicide rate in Korea was the highest among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to 2015 data, and had more than doubled since 2000. According to reports, suicide was the number one cause of death among teenagers in South Korea, where mental health services lag behind those in other countries.

Jong-hyun’s record label, SM Entertainment, released his solo album, “Poet/Artist,” in January 2018. The company announced that profits would go to his mother as well as a “foundation for the establishment of an organization to help those who are living in difficult circumstances.”Kim Ki-bum of SHINee, also known as “Key,” publicly addressed the future of the group after Jong-hyun’s death. 

“There have also been many people worried about us [SHINee], and we have decided to continue the Japan concert as planned,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “Jong-hyun would want us to do something like this, and I believe that it is of SHINee['s character] to continue and keep our promise to fans to showcase a good stage.” 

After the death of Jong-hyun, there were reported cases of fans attempting suicide. One failed attempt occurred in Indonesia. The fan had posted on Twitter: “Should I give up my life for now since I lost both of my parents and my idol? It's stressing me out.” She followed that tweet with: “I can't endure it anymore. Mom, dad, Jong-hyun oppa, we'll meet really soon.” 

For this K-pop fan, my only hope is for everyone to know that there’s support available to you. Fans also should realize that these idols are just as human as you and me. 

If you or a person you know is suffering through depression or mental illness, visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/or call 1-800-273-8255. 

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