K-pop stars shine spotlight on mental health through their own vulnerability
Mental health is not a topic that is openly talked about in Korea. However, things are slowly but surely changing as more and more K-pop stars are upfront and honest about needing breaks to focus on their mental health.
On Feb. 22, Starship Entertainment announced that Dawon of girl group WJSN will take time off in order to fully focus on treating her anxiety disorder.
"Dawon was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and has been receiving treatment," the agency said. "In consultation with Dawon, she wanted to continue to work while we take measures for her recovery. But it was recommended that she needs to focus on treatment by getting plenty of rest."
This is Dawon's second mental health break since she halted all her activities in December 2019 citing her anxiety disorder. This time, the announcement came a day after WJSN was revealed to be a participant on Mnet's upcoming "Queendom 2," the second season of a survival show which sees high-profile female K-pop acts compete.
Taking a break before such a highly-anticipated major group activity was likely a tough decision to make, but the announcement was met with support. Fans rushed to the comments section of her latest Instagram post to write get-well-soon messages, saying they love her always and that she should take as much time as she needs to come back healthy.
"No competition is more important than your physical or mental health," reads one comment. "Look after yourself, don't be stressed, eat and sleep well!"
Earlier this month, Jiyoon of girl group Weeekly also announced she would be taking a break citing her struggles with anxiety. Jiyoon had previously taken a four-month hiatus from last August for the same reason and resumed her activities. But she and her agency concluded she should take more time for her mental health after she "again displayed serious symptoms of anxiety."
"After much discussion with her family and doctors, it has been concluded that it will be difficult for Jiyoon to continue her activities as a Weeekly member," IST Entertainment stated, "and that it will be best if she focuses on recovering her health for now."
This is not the first time K-pop idols have opened up about their mental health. After stars such as singer Kang Daniel halted his activities in 2019 confessing his panic disorder, and members Jeongyeon and Mina of girl group Twice took on-and-off breaks due to anxiety between 2019 and 2021, such mental disorders became more widely known to the public. In 2020, boy band DAY6 halted its activities as a whole group due to anxiety.
With better awareness, more agencies now seem to prioritize their artists' mental health over their schedules and are open to announcing relapses and additional breaks when a longer period of rest is deemed necessary. The public is also responding with more support and less surprise toward such news.
Mental health issues are still largely stigmatized in Korea, and it is well-known that K-pop idols go through an immense amount of pressure throughout their training and stardom. But that may have been the fact that contributed to mental health awareness becoming heightened in the entertainment industry even before the general public started paying attention.
"Celebrities are more vulnerable to anxiety and panic disorders," said Dr. Kwon Jun-soo of Seoul National University Hospital, who is also a professor of psychiatry. "Apart from the pressures of being a public figure, they are expected to show a wide range of intense emotions that ordinary people usually don't have to. Because of that, anxiety and mood swings sound more 'understandable' to the public when a celebrity experiences them. So more celebrities felt they could open up about their struggles, and since they can reach a large audience, the public also started talking about it, making it less of something to hide."
However, prior to this societal shift, even popular celebrities who talked about their mental health struggles had to face stoic responses such as "heavy is the head that wears the crown" — that such mental pressure was the inevitable price of fame and wealth. In particular, K-pop idols, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, were expected to portray a bright and cheerful image at all times. Thus they faced even more difficulty expressing any mental struggles they may have been facing.
According to culture critic Kim Heon-sik, a number of top K-pop idols taking their own lives in a short period of time between 2017 and 2019 after battling depression sounded the alarm for society as a whole.
"There was the case of [singer and actor] Sulli [1994-2019] and many others," said Kim. "Since then, people started perceiving those struggles, especially regarding mental pain from hate comments, as a real issue and vocalizing a public dialogue. Another factor is that the level of workload and stress that K-pop idols face today is much more intense than before. Now they have to entertain fans not only in Korea but all around the world. Due to the development of social media, there's even platforms that offer one-on-one chatroom services with idol stars. That's a large load of emotional labor. It's good that the K-pop industry is at least becoming more considerate about mental healthcare."
"Celebrities being open [about mental health] does affect the general public and the atmosphere has changed a lot," added Dr. Kwon. "People used to be very secretive about mental health issues because there was a lot of stigma. It's little by little, but it has definitely been changing over the past few years. People are now willing to express that they feel anxious, et cetera, and seek medical help. My patients used to fear they might run into someone they knew at the hospital, but now more of them visit without shame."
The positive influence is not limited to Koreans, but affects a larger group of K-pop fans.
"I love how some companies are giving proper breaks to idol stars for their mental health," said a 29-year-old Indonesian K-pop fan named Liz. "Every agency should do that. Most Asian societies don't talk about mental health openly. Although I'm not a member of Once [which refers to Twice's fandom], it was very heartwarming to see how the members and fans were supportive when Mina and Jeongyeon opened up about their conditions. Seeing that made me embrace myself for who I am too, like how the Twice members did."
Some stars go a step further from taking breaks and actively express their mental struggles through music. Kang Daniel's song "Paranoia" (2021) visualized his internal struggles via its choreography and music video. Singer Sunmi's song "Borderline" (2019) takes a dark tone and talks about her years of suffering from borderline personality disorder, a condition that affects a person's emotional stability.
Sunmi held back from releasing "Borderline" because she felt the song was "too raw," but she officially listed it on her EP "1/6" in 2021. The candid lyrics that go, "It's been years takin' Xanax; And I got so much better [...] Digging myself deeper and deeper; I see what I rejected to see in the past; Pills, bloods, illness, abandoned," led many fans in the comments section of the song's music video to express they could relate or cried while reading the lyrics.
"Simply visiting a mental health clinic was viewed with prejudice before, but taking care of one's 'mental' has become a common term in Korea," critic Kim said. "I'm expecting that seeking professional help will also become widely acceptable and encouraged as more celebrities speak openly about mental health. It would be even better if agencies, big or small, establish a mandatory professional healthcare system within the company."
While more people participating in the mental health dialogue is a desirable starting point, Dr. Kwon says that the scope of the discussion should also broaden.
"Celebrities are revealing that they go through anxiety and depression, but if a celebrity has a major disorder like schizophrenia for instance, who would reveal that?" he said. "Even depression is less commonly talked about compared to anxiety, because celebrities don't really want to talk about how sad they are in front of fans.
"People also still feel ambivalent when medication is involved, because most of them still think resting, therapy and avoiding stressful activities are enough to recover from mental illness. But everyone has different temperaments and brain chemistry, so some people are naturally more vulnerable to stress leading to mental disorders. Because of the stigma that turning to medication is 'weak,' people who can improve greatly with medication just quietly suffer. The openness needs to develop into including more serious conditions and medication."
If you or someone you know is feeling emotionally distressed or struggling with thoughts of suicide, LifeLine Korea can be contacted at 1588-9191. The Seoul Global Center offers English-language counseling. Contact 02-2075-4180 to arrange a session. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org
BY HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]