K-pop culture under scrutiny for Sulli’s death
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