K-pop's Jae Park on the panic attack that triggered him to deal with his mental health issues

K-pop star Jae Park of Day6 says a panic attack last April woke him up to mental health issues he has since been dealing with. He hopes that by speaking out, he can help others.
PHOTO: Instagram/eajpark

Jae Park of Day6 realised he hasn’t been doing well for a long time while on a car ride in April, when he was thinking he was going to die.

The 28-year-old K-pop singer-guitarist later learned he wasn’t having a heart attack, but was experiencing an intense panic attack born out of his struggle with anxiety.

“When you come to this … I wouldn’t say peaceful resolution, but a very frightening resolution that, ‘Yeah, I might die in here and I’m going to have to accept that,’ your perspective on things kind of changes,” he reveals.

“I realised I was putting things off for so, so long that I’d become numb to the fact that it was slowly physically manifesting. I was always a believer that you can just ride things out, even if you’re sick you go on stage and start working, and you won’t feel sick any more. Even if you have a headache, you sleep, you wake up, you feel better. I was always that kind of person. But it didn’t feel like that in that car ride.”

Jae Park has made it his mission to combat toxic positivity that causes people to sweep mental health issues under the rug.
PHOTO: Stefanie Michova

Now Park, who typically is known just as “Jae” in the K-pop world, is in a better place; he’s working on facing the circumstances of his life and making changes to take care of himself, including taking medication that helps take the edge off.

“I’ve been feeling a lot better, and learning more and more. After it happened I started delving deeper into the mental health aspect of what was going on with me as a person,” he says.

“[Poor} mental health isn’t a choice you make, but something that occurs to you due to your choices. You don’t choose whether to allow yourself to succumb to it, you just over time build up to the point where eventually everything crumbles down. You ignore your worries.

“You sweep everything under the rug, all your emotions, enough times for [it] to flip over eventually with everything on top of it.”

He’s since made it his aim to spread awareness of the impact of toxic positivity and of the importance of treating mental health as normally as treating physical health, because he spent the majority of his life unaware of the connection and the potential of his mental state to impact his physical health.

“It’s not something I want people to go through, so if I can do anything in this world before I leave it, let’s raise some awareness. And so if maybe someone has an episode like me, they’ll be able to look back on my interview or see through the campaign that, ‘Oh, this might be a panic attack.’

“I’ve since learned after that incident that a lot of panic attack first-timers assume they’re having heart attacks. It’s this imminent feeling that you’re going to die. On the walk home, I was crying.

“I don’t know if it was tears of joy or fear, but I just remember crying a lot.”

Why Jae Park launched his clothing line

Jae recently teamed up with charitable apparel brand Represent to launch his From Friends clothing line, one of the aims of which is to remind people that it is okay to turn to friends when they’re having a rough time, rather than always putting on a happy face and pushing emotions aside.

“I really wanted to let people know that it’s okay not to be okay. That’s what caused me not being able to function. If you’re still at a stage where you’re not sure if you’re okay, talk to friends. Talk about it, and realise you may be going through something bigger than you think.

“I’m not saying over-exaggerate every emotional hurdle you jump over, but I knew what I was doing when I was sweeping things under the rug.

K-pop star Jae Park wears a look from his clothing line From Friends whose sales fund youth mental health outreach. “I think people need to be more real,” he says.
PHOTO: Stefanie Michova

“If you’re not at that point where you have to get on medication or need therapy or some other kind of treatment, you need to maybe stop what you’re doing and look at yourself real quick before you have an incident.”

Through the collaboration, Jae and Represent donated US$100,000 (S$133,050) to the Jed Foundation, an organisation combating mental health stigma and raising awareness of suicide prevention among America’s youth.

The artist grew up in California and only began pursuing a career in South Korea’s music world while taking a break from college back in 2012.

Jae wants to focus on talking about the experience with younger people, because he wishes someone had told him about the potential impact of ignoring mental health.

“‘From Friends’ was a thought that I had, that it would be more personable and relatable if the message came from a friend. ‘As a friend, I want to let you know that I screwed myself over by doing this, so this is my advice to you and I hope you take a look at yourself.’ Not the ‘yes’ men around you, your friends who are always telling you things are great even when they aren’t. Real friends will tell you when something is wrong. ‘You don’t seem like yourself these days, maybe take a step back and look at yourself?’”

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Following his panic attack in the car and starting on medication, Jae said some of his friends pointed out to him he’s a bit more solemn and has a less bright personality.

There is stigma about mental health medication in this regard, but Jae feels it’s not impacting him negatively, but rather he’s able to rein in his need to be overenthusiastic and upbeat to compensate for feeling low.

One thing Jae really wants to combat is toxic positivity, which he feels he was constantly leaning into prior to his panic attack in April; he would often attempt to put on a good face and put good energy into the world in a way that’s idealised without internalising his own feelings.

He says he’s still learning to really understand the idea, but thinks it’s along the lines of not really believing something but saying it regardless to try to seem a certain way publicly, or manifesting good energy when it’s not necessarily there.

Jae feels his chosen field of work hasn’t necessarily helped the situation, and he’s grappling with that while trying to raise discussions.

Is K-pop part of the problem?

“Especially, I feel like [K-pop] idols are … supposed to uphold a standard of perfection, but that in itself I think is a form of toxic positivity. It’s extremely, extremely toxic, more than most people think. We’re role models, right?

“If we’re always picture perfect, squeaky shiny, and always for the right causes, never have an opinion [on] anything, what happens when the people who look up to us have an opinion? When they’re not squeaky perfect? If they’re comparing themselves to us, they may think, ‘My favourite singer is always happy. He’s always cheery. But I’m sad. That’s strange.’ What kind of role model is that?”

Change is happening slowly in the industry, and artists are increasingly talking about their own states of mental health. The past few years have seen several K-pop artists go on hiatus to take care of themselves. But there’s still more work to do, according to Jae.

Jae hopes that in 2021 he sees the fruit of the seeds he planted last year.
PHOTO : Stefanie Michova

“I think people need to be more real. I think people need to be more transparent. Mental health has become a wider known issue these days, so I think more people are open to talking about it.

“We preach that it’s okay to be normal, but it’s not something that we actually show, don’t actually act on. We preach it all the time: ‘It’s okay not to be okay.’ You see it in the songs everywhere. But I feel like the same artists who sing these songs and the same people who say these things publicly are the same people who always are perfect on the red carpet, never transparent enough to show who they actually are as a person.

“I feel like that in itself is a kind of hypocrisy. I try to be as human as I can while upholding a certain standard because I recognise and respect the culture [of being a celebrity].”

It was upholding the unrealistic standards that Jae in part thinks led things to get so bad, as he was always thinking about the perceptions of others and reining himself in.

A comment a fan made on social media about it being a good thing that he was less likely to share an opinion while speaking in Korean, rather than in English, helped him realise the intensity of what he was doing: Because there is an idea that having opinions as a public person can lead to trouble, some fans of a group may not want band members to reflect their true opinions, and he had internalised the burden of that feeling regarding opinions to the extreme.

“It’s so ridiculous to me,” he admits. “That having an opinion could have any sort of connotation of being negative. I feel like having an opinion is never the problem. Having a strange and maybe immoral or unjust opinion, that’s definitely the problem. We as a society have come to a point where you can’t say anything without being judged.”

Jae models From Friends gear. “I’m definitely recovering, and hopefully moving in the right direction,” he says. 
PHOTO: Stefanie Michova

Now, he’s trying to be more forthright and earnest while expressing himself, and trying not to internalise the opinions of every random person who has opinions on his opinions, and thus has more or less stopped reading comments on social media.

“My emotional energy can be used better somewhere else, and I only have a certain amount every day,” he admits. “If people are going to hate me for what I think, they’re going to hate me regardless, so I’m just trying to be more open about everything now. No bubble of protection, no filter, no safety being on any more. If they don’t like it, that’s just me.

“I removed that filter because I thought it was one of the reasons I had that panic attack in the first place. I think I was right, because I’ve been having less and less [incidents]. Biting your tongue is necessary in many situations, but biting it to the extent that I was biting it because of boundaries I wasn’t allowed to cross, or certain opinions I was told I couldn’t uphold, that was what was hurting me the most.”

Making his own music, and the future

Following the incident, Jae spent much of 2020 not actively taking part in the activities of Day6, and focused on releasing his own music under the name “eaJ”.

Through several releases, he explored his own artistry rather than thinking about what audiences want to hear, and focused on finding what he likes, trying to garner respect for his musical capabilities, and consider what he wants out of his career.

He feels like he succeeded at that, and hopes 2021 bears the fruit of the seeds he planted last year.

“Music gets my imagination going; using my emotional energy on a song or recording session, that seems like a lot more fruitful than worrying about a comment that I can’t do anything about regardless.”

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One thing that inspired him to share some solo work with the world was the realisation of how much it was impacting him that his musical worth within Day6 wasn’t getting much recognition.

“We as a team are always involved in the songs, and it felt really discrediting and disheartening to hear that some members were more recognised than others. [I thought} ‘Maybe it’s time you start following your own career path and showing your own colours.’”

Three members of the band released an album in August, but Jae and the group’s other vocalist-guitarist, Sungjin, both sat it out. Jae admits that his hiatus from the band since early May wasn’t exactly his idea.

“It may be a bit of a surprise for some people to hear, but I was never someone that said, ‘I need a break.’ I was like, ‘I’ll get better.’ I was thinking, ‘I might need a little bit of time, but you guys get on it first.’ To be honest, I will be thriving, and Day6 will be, with the next album. When everyone is ready, I’ll be good.”

Overall, Jae says he’s optimistic and looking forward to a successful, healthy 2021. “I’m definitely recovering, and hopefully moving in the right direction,” he says.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.