The untimely deaths of three of the biggest K-pop stars of their generation in the last two years have sparked conversations on the perils of neglecting mental health in the global multi-billion dollar industry.
Proposed solutions to some of the issues idols constantly face have yet to make an impact, while fears that business would go on as usual only find solace in posts that call responsible parties out after the damage.
The exact circumstances surrounding and leading to the passing of Kim Jong-hyun, Choi Jin-ri and Goo Ha-ra are unknown, but all three had wrestled with work-related issues that at some point took a toll on their emotional well-being.
On the evening of Dec. 18, 2017, Kim, better known as Jonghyun, main vocalist of the SM Entertainment boy group SHINee, was found unconscious at his apartment in Cheongdam, Seoul.
There, authorities located burned coal briquettes in a frying pan, which led to the ruling of his eventual death as suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Prior to his death, Jonghyun sent a final text message to his sister, which stated that he “had a hard time.”
“It’s been too hard,” the 27-year-old idol wrote.
“Please send me off. Tell everyone I’ve had a hard time. Tell me I did well. This is my last goodbye.”
Singer Nine9, the main vocalist of the group Dear Cloud, also shared a chilling letter Jonghyun had previously asked her to release, which shed more light on his mental battles.
It reads in part:
“I am damaged from the inside. The depression that has been slowly eating away at me has completely swallowed me, and I couldn’t win over it.
“I hated myself. I tried to hold on to breaking memories and yelled at myself to get a grip, but there was no answer.
“If I can’t clear my breath, it’s better to stop.”
But while her predecessor is believed to have succumbed to work pressures, Sulli challenged social norms perpetuated in the largely patriarchal society, such as voicing her disdain for wearing bras and acknowledging that she had been going on dates — an activity frowned upon or explicitly prohibited by some labels.
The former f(x) member, who was found dead in her Seongnam home on Oct. 14, had also been vocal about her mental health struggles, opening up about her panic disorder and social phobia.
Immediately after her passing, fans and others in the K-pop community revisited her social media posts to look for answers.
“I’m not a bad person. I’m sorry,” Sulli said in one video, defending herself from trolls who attacked her for her choices. “Why are you saying bad things about me? What did I do to deserve this?”
In an earlier live stream, the 25-year-old simply stared at the camera with a sad expression. Her silence for more than seven minutes was enough to concern more intuitive fans.
“Every moment, I am assisted by people to continue living. Due to their blessings, I have the courage to continue living and led me to feel that life is not only to be spent alone. I want to be someone who gives warmth to others and I want to thank everybody,” she wrote.
Like Jonghyun’s suicide, Sulli’s was mourned by both fans and other K-pop idols, including her friend Goo Ha-ra — mononymously known as Hara — who broke down in tears upon hearing the news.
In what appears to be a shocking escalation of problems in the industry, however, Hara herself died several weeks later, leaving a final Instagram post that bid “good night.”
The 28-year-old, who rose to fame as a member of the DSP Media girl group Kara, was found dead in her Cheongdam residence on the evening of Nov. 24.
Jeon Tae-soo, younger brother of actress Ha Ji-won, best known for his role in the 2010 drama “Sungkyunkwan Scandal,” received treatment for depression before dying in an apparent suicide last year.
Other actors who killed themselves include Lee Eun-joo (“The Scarlet Letter”) in 2005, Jang Ja-yeon (“Boys Over Flowers”) in 2009 and Choi Jin-sil, who was called “The Nation’s Actress,” in 2008.
While South Korea has the highest rate of survival for major cancers in the developed world, it leads the list for suicides (24.6 per 100,000 people) among 36 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), just after Lithuania (26.7 per 100,000 people).
Around 500,000 people — or 1% of the population — in South Korea suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and recurrent depression, according to the Ministry of Health and Welfare.
Of those numbers, 77,000 are hospitalized at medical facilities, while 92,000 are registered with local mental health welfare or psychiatric rehabilitation programs.
Unfortunately, the rest, a whopping 330,000, have no access to either hospital treatment or mobile care.
As a result, the South Korean government announced measures to assist individuals with mental illnesses earlier this year, primarily in response to violent crimes with mentally-ill suspects.
These include making diagnosis and treatment facilities more accessible, increasing subsidies for low-income patients and establishing a more intensive care system for those with more severe illnesses.
Thus, a suspect who is able to prove mental incapacity at the time of the crime is expected to receive a lighter sentence.
“Through early detection and treatment, and with constant care, [people living with mental illness] are able to integrate into society,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said, according to the Korea Herald.
For those battling malicious comments on the internet — as Sulli had experienced — a bill in the works also offers some hope.
The proposed legislation, aptly titled “Sulli’s Law,” is expected to be discussed at the National Assembly this month.
“South Korean society is holding on to the idea that men must be respected and women are not deserving of respect, or at least not much,” Ryu Sang-ho, a neurologist in Busan, told The Guardian. “The media feed off that, so it’s no surprise that the public don’t have any sense of empathy towards these women.”
Ryu suggested that South Korea can do better with mental health, especially when social taboos are finally put to rest.
“The blame lies with South Korean society in general,” Ryu said. “Many people with mental health issues are reluctant to take medication for fear of being seen as weak-minded. Mental health problems should be treated in the same way as a common cold. South Korean society needs to catch up.”
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