South Korea is a home to its famed K-Pop industry and hosting top groups like BTS, BLACKPINK, and EXO. It continues to appeal to the masses for its powerful, near-perfect choreographies, intricate music videos, and a countless procession of attractive K-pop performers.
Beneath the glam of the industry lie K-pop artists, more prominently known as ‘idols,’ who, like ordinary people, may experience mental health problems. Moreover, due to the stigma encompassing the epidemic, many artists choose to maintain their silence in hopes of protecting their reputation and image imposed on the public eye.
K-Pop artists are expected to undergo gruelling training, often at the expense of their mental well-being, for a prolonged time. Initially, they train as teens before their company determines whether they are worthy of debuting. Some of them have to prepare even for years. For example, Jihyo from the famed girl group TWICE underwent training for more than 10 years before joining the group formed on survival show ‘SIXTEEN.’
The longstanding tenacity and perseverance continue ensuing their debut with the mix of intense schedules, sleep deprivation, and the intimidating burden of living up to their ‘earned’ title.’ Hence, idols remain with no room for daily leisure, leaving little certainty of mentally healthy artists.
This issue is not restricted to merely K-Pop artists. It transcends the confines of the K-Pop industry to South Korean society at large, with its population built on the twist of the well-known adage ‘work hard, plays hard’: ‘work hard, no play.’
Stress remains rife in South Korea due to intense pressure being placed on students and the long working hours, to name some. This may contribute to why the country has one of the highest suicide rates compared to other nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Furthermore, experts have noted that resources are scarce for people suffering from mental health issues. Concerning the notion of mental illness and mental health, the taboo surrounding this topic in South Korean society prevents a large proportion of individuals from seeking help. Unlike many countries’ largely agreed sentiment that mental illnesses should be treated the same way as physical illnesses are, South Korea denotes that any sign of mental illness is viewed as a failure of moral quality.
K-Pop idols are painted as ‘perfect,’ whether it be their appearance, their mannerisms, or how they sing or dance. Icons may be pressured to go to the extreme in maintaining a ‘perfect’ image, predominantly by their agency. For example, Euodias, a former K-Pop trainee and current YouTuber, claimed that her company encouraged her to have cosmetic surgery with the aim of outwitting any competitors. If they ‘steer’ from what is instilled in the audiences’ minds as the image of ‘perfection,’ they are torpedoed with relentless criticism, often in the form of hateful comments on social – networking platforms.
Moreover, artists must religiously obey their agency’s requests, however much it conflicts with their beliefs. Their personal lives, particularly the dating part of them, are constantly monitored. In the realm of K-Pop, dating is highly forbidden in most agencies and can hence fall victim to criticism from fans. However, recently, fans have been slightly more accepting of artists dating. As a result, fans are equipped with the power to send ‘idols’ to stardom or end their careers. This could provide them with a dangerous level of opportunity to manipulate artists’ professional and personal lives.
The K-Pop world has had to come to terms with the deaths of many artists, such as much loved Kim Jong-hyun from the boy band SHINee. Apparently, he has hinted of his suffering with depression long before his suicide. Also, former girl group f(x)’s Sulli, a victim of cyberbullying, and Goo Hara a month later, who suffered cyberbullying after her sex video scandal with her former boyfriend. Despite these saddening deaths occurring, the industry fails to alter its ways to a certain degree. On the contrary, among others who have unfortunately succumbed to mental health issues, they have helped place mental health at the forefront of discussion, both within the K-Pop industry and beyond.
Yet, K-Pop stars are provided with finite options in terms of the information they share with their fans, whether addressing their struggles with mental health or who they are dating. It is important to note that perceptions of mental health issues in South Korea are now changing, with many artists speaking outrightly about it. For example, Super Junior’s Leeteuk revealed his traumatic past of physical abuse from his father. The latter later took his life after murdering his grandparents and spoke of his depression in many instances. Taeyeon from the girl group Girls’ Generation, dubbed as the former ‘Nation’s Girl Group’ in South Korea, also revealed she is battling depression in an Instragam Q+A session.
Additionally, within the last few years, many more agencies have been more open to the idea of artists taking a hiatus from their group activities if suffering from their mental health. For example, Han from Stray Kids took a brief break after displaying anxiety symptoms, especially when in large crowds. Some other indications of South Korean society’s attempt to lift its stigma surrounding mental health are the introduction of the National Center for Mental health in 2016; artists raising mental health awareness via concerts; and the release of songs that explore artists’ personal relationships with mental health.
Sadly, it has taken many deaths of people suffering from mental health issues to spark conversations about mental health in South Korea. To decrease the level of stigma within the K-Pop industry, it initiates with the acknowledgement that artists are human too and have the same desires, hopes, aspirations, and flaws as us. More importantly, artists should be allowed to express themselves in whatever way makes them comfortable. Let’s hope that this will be the beginning of the end to the stigmatisation of mental health in South Korea and worldwide.
If you or anyone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, then please call the Samaritans at 116 123. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In addition, please look at befrienders.org to find other international suicide helplines.