2018 Sees K-pop Stars Addressing Mental Health Stressors in Industry

Han Myung-Gu/WireImage
Taemin of SHINee attends the KBS Idol Rebooting Project "The Unit" Press Conference on Oct. 25, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea.  

A concert series that began in Seoul today will feature some of Korea's most prominent artists as they hope to raise awareness regarding suicide prevention, the latest instance of South Korean entertainers partaking in public discourse surrounding psychological disorders and treatment.

The free-of-charge Shining Road concert series is hosted by veteran singer and actor Lee Dong Woo, who struggled with depression following a 2004 diagnosis of a debilitating disease that led to blindness according to the Korea Daily.

He will be joined throughout April 23-May 7 by many prominent South Korean stars, including Lee Seung Chul, Girls’ Generation’s Sooyoung, Kangta, singer-songwriter Yoon Jong Shin, and several other artists and actors. All proceeds raised will be donated to youth suicide prevention organizations, making it one of the largest-scale events to recently feature K-pop stars raising funds to aid people struggling with their mental health.

The suicide prevention concert series will also notably feature Taemin of SHINee, whose bandmate Jonghyun passed away at the end of 2017 to his struggle with depression. The tragedy spurred numerous conversations about the state of mental health care in South Korea and within its entertainment industry, and the concerts come after the first few months of 2018 saw a more open approach to psychological struggles in the K-pop world. Since the start of the new year, several stars have broached the subject publicly, despite there being a sense of taboo due to South Korea’s deeply ingrained cultural reluctance towards publicly discussing psychological disorders. 

While stars had become more open with their struggles over the past few years, with several even taking hiatuses from the industry, the forthright approach to conversing regularly about intimate matters as seen over the past few months is a new facet providing insight into the lives of and thoughts of K-pop stars, and one that sets an example to the popular music industry's global audience.

The first prominent instance of this came on Jan. 5, when Park Kyung of the boy band Block B spoke to BBC Korea about the psychological hardships faced by K-pop stars. Park appeared during a lengthy Facebook Live and an interview where he addressed the stressors behind the K-pop idol lifestyle. “There are many people who debuted with no sense of self yet, and they come to realize later that every move and every word they say is being observed so they become cautious and lose their freedom,” he said, according to a translation. “So personally, I think 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."

When asked, Park said he had not seen a professional therapist but that he turned to prayer during hard times.

Since then, several other popular Korean singers have also addressed how they faced hardships throughout their career.

Soloist Younha, who had seen immense success in South Korea in the mid-00s and recently returned with her Rescue album in December, told The Korea Herald that she had lost interest in music over the past few years due to a sense of darkness, and eventually turned to antidepressants. “The last three years have been a dark and long tunnel in my life,” she said. “Music wasn’t interesting anymore.” The singer has since gone off the medication, and “rescued” herself from her depression, an experience reflected in her album.

BTS’ Suga and RM also similarly addressed anxiety and depression in an interview with Korean outlet Yonhap. According to SBS Australia’s translation, Suga, who previously spoke about his struggles with psychiatric illness and the type of treatments he sought out on his Agust D mixtape, reportedly said that, “Anxiety and loneliness seem to be with me for life…Emotions are so different in every situation and every moment, so I think to agonise every moment is what life is.” RM described anxiety as a “shadow” on life.

The most noted shift towards stars publicly addressing mental health and treatment took place during a March episode of Super Junior’s Super TV reality show, where two members of the boy band, Leeteuk and Heechul, went to a counseling center and participated in individual and joint therapy sessions on camera. Veterans in the industry, the pair allowed their personal struggles with their identity as individuals in the spotlight to be broadcast on television.

The K-pop-adjacent conversation has definitely faced some growing pains, but generally things have been mostly positive. One instance at the end of 2017 led to an apology in early January from EXO’s Baekhyun after he was criticized for his allegedly dismissive attitude towards depression. In the message, the singer expressed regret over his phrasing and a desire to move forward regarding discussions about mental health in a more prudent manner.  

On an individual level, each artist opening up earnestly about their struggles and imperfections is important, and helps to humanize these idol-like humans. But as a mass movement, as K-pop stars begin to more frankly address the hardships of their personal lives and the struggles of their industry in public, it will also help normalize discussions around mental health struggles and treatments with a newfound sense of openness that will hopefully spread to both their local and international audiences. Meanwhile, events like the Shining Road concert hope to further facilitate this by creating what Lee described as a “public venue to openly express any pain at heart, join hands with those around you, and facilitate communication with others.” 

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