How the K-pop industry is dealing with idols' mental health

Suga from BTS has spoken out about mental health. The K-pop industry is taking note of mental health issues among its stars.
PHOTO: Big Hit Entertainment

As the doom of 2020 gives way to 2021, conversations raising awareness about mental health care are coming from the world of K-pop.

The year began with Nu’est member Aron taking a break from the industry after experiencing symptoms of anxiety on Jan 2, shortly after his group performed at K-pop company Big Hit Entertainment’s New Year’s Eve concert.

Aron from Nu'est.
PHOTO: Pledis Entertainment

Two days later, it was revealed that boy band SuperM was teaming up with the Prudential insurance company for a pan-Asian campaign dubbed We Do Well Together.

The aim is “to encourage people across Asia to stay well and healthy, and have fun doing it” through a series of promotional tie-in releases and events.

Ethnomusicologist Stephanie Choi told the Post that “corona blues” had sparked a growing dialogue in South Korean society about mental health issues. “I think it would be timely for a megagroup like SuperM to talk about mental health to their fans around the world. I don’t think their project has to do particularly with K-pop artists,” she said.

The K-pop industry has often been accused by Western media of having a “dark side” that leads to suicides of young stars.

The “dark side” narrative is considered by many to disregard similar issues in Hollywood and other Western industries, such as the “27 Club”, the colloquial term for the deaths of many popular 27-year-old musicians in the second half of the 20th century.

Choi believes mental health issues among young celebrities are not specifically a K-pop problem, but rather a Korean societal one.

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But still, Korean entertainment companies, celebrities and fans have increasingly talked about improving mental health care and reducing the stigma about discussing mental health in recent years.

“I think the companies have definitely learned that they should pay more attention to their artists’ mental health, though I don’t think the suicides are perceived as a ‘K-pop problem’ in Korea,” she says.

“Those of [singer-actors] Sulli and Goo Hara also gained the media spotlight as women’s problems. Looking at their deaths as a ‘K-pop problem’ ignores the issues of online harassment, molka (spycam porn) and dating abuse that other Korean women also face on a daily basis.”

Campaigns such as SuperM’s and BTS ’ collaboration with Unicef for the Love Myself anti-violence campaign in 2017 are examples of K-pop artists raising awareness through cooperation with other organisations.

“We often think a desire for social justice and peace, including mental health issues, is anti-capitalist,” said Choi. “But popular culture is an outcome of capitalism and there are so many cases in which pop artists use their publicity to raise social awareness and vice versa. What’s wrong with that?

“Everyone works for a living, and it’s better to earn money by having a positive impact on society than doing harm.

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“Everything the companies do in public will be in line with their publicity efforts and profit making, and it is timely to talk about mental health in the era of ‘corona blues’. But at the same time, I see that the companies and artists feel more comfortable telling their fans that certain artists are not doing well and that they need a break.”

K-pop stars are increasingly bringing up the subject of mental health, discussing the situations of fans over live streams and raising awareness to reduce stigma.

Jae Park, of K-pop-rock band Day6, recently donated U$100,000 (S$132,000) through a collaboration with The Jed Foundation, a non-profit focused on aiding American youth in the transition from childhood to adulthood with the aim of reducing suicide.

In an interview with Esquire last year, BTS member Suga, who has released songs that explore his own struggles with mental health issues, spoke of how he believed mental health should be treated the same as physical health issues.

“People’s conditions vary day by day,” he said. “Sometimes you’re in a good condition; sometimes you aren’t. Based on that, you get an idea of your physical health. That same thing applies mentally. Some days you’re in a good state; sometimes you’re not.”

“Many pretend to be OK, saying that they’re not ‘weak’, as if that would make you a weak person. I don’t think that’s right. People won’t say you’re a weak person if your physical condition is not that good. It should be the same for the mental condition as well. Society should be more understanding.”

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According to Choi, the K-pop industry recognises its unique stressors and change is happening slowly. Publicly announced hiatuses for mental health are a step in the right direction for the K-pop world. “K-pop is a risky business. The market is saturated with hundreds of idol groups, and every group faces a seven-year survival project.

“As musicians, but also as affective labourers who promote themselves by building intimate relationships with their fans, it is a must for these artists to be in touch with their fans via music and social media on a daily basis.”

Singer-rapper Aron (Aaron Kwak) is one of several popular K-pop stars who has taken a break from his career to focus on his mental health over the past few years. Others, such as Mina of Twice and soloist Kang Daniel , have also similarly publicly declared the need to take time off.

Mina from Twice publicly declared the need for time off.
PHOTO: JYP Entertainment

“Fans wish to be in frequent touch with their idols, actively intervene in company decisions, and express their opinions on their idols’ remarks, behaviour, habits, lifestyles, and even personal relationships that used to be private,” says Choi.

“An official hiatus not only means idols can be absent from physical schedules, but also implies that they are free from maintaining constant contact with their fans and emancipate themselves temporarily from the daily emotional labour. This means that not only the companies but also fans are acknowledging the intensity of the labour and are ready to wait until their idols come back.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.