K-pop cul­ture un­der scru­tiny for Sulli’s death

The Korea Times - - CULTURE - By Jung Hae-my­oung [email protected]­re­atimes.co.kr

Ac­tress and singer Sulli’s death sad­dened many fans.

Some were fu­ri­ous about the K-pop en­ter­tain­ment agen­cies for their al­legedly ir­re­spon­si­ble at­ti­tude to­ward their singers’ men­tal health.

Kim Dong-wan, a mem­ber of first gen­er­a­tion K-pop boy band Shin­hwa, wrote on so­cial me­dia, Tues­day, that many K-pop idols’ fame and money came at the ex­pense of their men­tal health.

“Celebri­ties are work­ing un­der ex­treme pres­sure and the level of stress they face is in­creas­ing as com­pe­ti­tion be­comes heav­ier. Young K-pop idols par­tic­u­larly don’t eat or sleep prop­erly be­cause of their tight sched­ules, yet they are asked to hide their emo­tions and smile and show pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes for their fans in pub­lic. They have to be sexy but must not have sex, and be tough but must not fight for any­thing,” Kim wrote.

In­deed, many idols de­but af­ter years of tough work as trainees. How­ever, af­ter their de­but they are ex­posed to in­hu­mane sched­ules that force them to en­dure long hours of work. They have no privacy and con­stantly suf­fer ma­li­cious com­ments from in­ter­net users who use anonymity to ha­rass stars. As a re­sult, some stars end up with de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety dis­or­der.

Mina, a mem­ber of K-pop girl group TWICE, had to pause her mu­sic ca­reer tem­po­rar­ily due to ex­treme psy­cho­log­i­cal stress and anx­i­ety. She could not par­tic­i­pate in the group’s lat­est al­bum as she was di­ag­nosed with anx­i­ety dis­or­der.

Tae-min from boy band SHINee also con­fessed he was un­der pres­sure to meet ris­ing ex­pec­ta­tions from his fans. “I have to self-man­age be­cause there is no privacy in my life and I al­ways need to be care­ful not to get into any trou­ble, which is tough,” he said.

Many K-pop stars be­gan their mu­si­cal ca­reers when they were very young. They are sup­posed to show ab­so­lute obe­di­ence to their agen­cies. They have no free time to re­flect on their lives. They are stressed out but have no time to seek treat­ment for fear go­ing to the hospi­tal could lead to ru­mors.

Sulli suf­fered th­ese ex­act prob­lems. In 2005 she started out in the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness as a child ac­tor at age 11. Later that year she passed an au­di­tion to be­come a K-pop trainee for SM En­ter­tain­ment, dur­ing which time she lived in a dor­mi­tory with older trainees. In 2009 she joined the girl group f(x) at age 15, stay­ing with the group un­til July 2014 when she an­nounced a tem­po­rary break in her ca­reer due to ma­li­cious com­ments and base­less ru­mors. Her break from the band later be­came per­ma­nent, and she switched her fo­cus to acting, as well as start­ing a solo mu­sic ca­reer. Her with­drawal from f(x) may have been a cry for help.

“Many celebri­ties who de­buted at young ages suf­fer from de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety as they have to live in the pub­lic eye. They can be vul­ner­a­ble if they get too much at­ten­tion,” said Park Jong-seok, head doc­tor at Yon­sei Bom Psy­chi­a­try in Seoul. “They go through ado­les­cence with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing gen­uine friend­ships and sta­bil­ity with peer groups.”

Ac­cord­ing to Park, liv­ing in the pub­lic eye can lead the celebri­ties to have a lack of con­fi­dence, emo­tional in­sta­bil­ity, ob­ses­sive be­hav­ior and in­abil­ity to adapt. He noted: “They can feel a sense of de­pri­va­tion be­cause they don’t have enough time with their fam­ily and friends. The ob­ses­sion to suc­ceed and sur­vive in ex­treme com­pe­ti­tion can also lead to an in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex.”

Sulli was no iso­lated case. When Jonghyun, a for­mer mem­ber of fel­low SM En­ter­tain­ment group SHINee, com­mit­ted sui­cide in De­cem­ber 2017, crit­i­cism erupted to­ward the agency’s man­age­ment sys­tem for idol trainees’ men­tal health.

“SM En­ter­tain­ment is the agency that in­tro­duced idol cul­ture to Korea in the 1990s and later this sys­tem be­came the stan­dard for the K-pop in­dus­try over­all,” said Kang Moon, a mu­sic critic. “As the num­ber of singers who have com­mit­ted sui­cide has in­creased, it’s time for agen­cies to check the train­ing sys­tem to see how they can help to pre­vent sui­cide and pay more at­ten­tion to their singers’ men­tal health.”

“Big agen­cies do have men­tal health pro­grams in hand with univer­sity hos­pi­tals, but it is im­prac­ti­cal due to celebri­ties’ busy sched­ules,” the doc­tor said.

“It is more im­por­tant to ed­u­cate those around the pa­tient. De­pres­sion mostly comes from ex­treme burnout and it is im­por­tant to di­ag­nose it at an early stage be­fore it gets worse.”


The late singer-ac­tress Sulli

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