K-Pop Has A Mental Health Problem
Warning: This article discusses suicide.
The glittering world of K-pop, dominated by the precision dancing and infectious pop music of its handsome boy-bands and cute-yet-fierce girl-groups, has been left reeling in recent weeks by the deaths of some of its high profile stars. That many of these deaths were the result of suicide speaks to an important mental health problem within South Korea’s music industry -- an issue which many K-pop fans both in Korea and in Australia have come together to address.
For the uninitiated, K-pop refers to the globally popular music industry that has led South Korean bands such as BTS and Blackpink to world domination. K-pop is big business around the world, with young fans in Australia forming an important part of this global movement -- in fact, Aussie fans pushed BTS’s album Map of the Soul: Persona to the top of the ARIA charts in May this year. Recent years have even seen young Aussies such as Christopher Bang Chan and Felix Lee travel to South Korea to train and become “idols”.
The training that these idols undertake is particularly grueling, focusing on producing “perfect” celebrities capable of dancing, singing, rapping and who embody South Korea’s notoriously rigid beauty standards. Young people typically enter the industry in early adolescence and train for years before they are debuted by their production company, where their image is then sold to adoring fans and placed under the intense scrutiny of not only the South Korean public but also a global community of consumers.
The pressure of performing to perfection as K-pop idols sometimes leads to terrible consequences, as demonstrated by the events of recent months. In mid-October, outspoken artist and self-proclaimed feminist Sulli committed suicide after years of depression caused by online criticism of her politics and unconventional lifestyle. Goo Hara, a former member of girl-group KARA, also chose to end her life after months of depression after alleged sexual harassment by a former partner as well as cyber-bullying from an angry public. This week, rookie actor and singer Cha In Ha passed away suddenly, with police still investigating the cause of death.
That young stars such as Sulli and Goo Hara appeared to feel that the only escape from their mental health struggles and the pressures faced by Korean idols was to end their lives reveals a troubling lack of support for Korea’s young celebrities. Mental illness is highly stigmatised in South Korean society and it is often difficult for young people to find support systems in a society increasingly chasing perfection. The suicides of stars such as Sulli and Goo Hara reveal that the Korean music industry is not immune from these trends. The industry itself is beginning to recognise this problem, with popular celebrities such as Kang Daniel and Jackson Wang recently announcing that they would take a break from performing to preserve their mental health.
Fans of K-pop in South Korea and Australia are responding to these tragic deaths in a very positive manner, drawing upon these experiences to share resources with each other and begin discussing the mental health of idols.
In particular, lengthy discussions of cyber-bullying of K-pop stars have emerged on Twitter, with most fans of K-pop recognising a strong need to reform the fan culture itself. Fans are beginning to push for more positive working environments and for greater tolerance for those idols who fail to perform “perfection.”
I have been interviewing fans of K-pop in Australia for the past 18 months, learning about what draws them into K-pop fandom and why they are so attracted to these idols. Rather than focusing on the supposed “perfection” of K-pop stars, I was heartened to learn that K-pop served an important role in addressing their own feelings of self-worth. Further, Aussie K-pop fans spoke candidly about how the K-pop fan community has aided their own mental health, providing a supportive environment for many young Aussies who often felt separated from the typical mainstream.
Whilst the K-pop industry clearly has issues, and more needs to be done to address the lack of support idols face when dealing with mental health issues, many fans would point me to the message of global K-pop superstars BTS. Since the release of their Love Yourself series of albums in 2017, BTS has partnered with UNICEF to develop the Love Myself campaign aimed at addressing bullying, both off and online.
K-pop fans told me that the solution to the mental health problem facing the Korean music industry could be found within this message -- there is a need to create a space free of harassment in which idols and fans can love and support each other.