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In October 2019, K-pop star and South Korean actress Sulli, born Choi Jin-rin, committed suicide aged only 25. A month later, fellow K-pop star Goo Hara, aged 28, also took her own life. Unfortunately, these tragic events can be added to a long list of mental-health-related deaths within the industry. Consequently, fans are becoming more and more aware of the toll K-pop stardom takes on an individual’s health. Specifically, K-pop, an abbreviation for Korean popular music, is a more rigorous version of the Japanese idol system. This system aims to manufacture an image of perfection that enables the individual to act as a role model, thereby ensuring a dedicated consumer-fan base. To do so, Korean agencies train pre-teen children, often with no experience, to become stars. The training can be brutal, sometimes lasting 16 hours per day. The label controls their diets, mobile phone usage, and prohibits dating. The latter is to ensure what the Guardian poignantly defines as female K-pop stars “sexually desirable but inexperienced” image. What’s more, it is not infrequent for their contract to state that once they have acquired success, they must pay the label for their previous training. Thus, many of these stars must work for free for years. Consequently, the immense pressure, loss of both personal and financial autonomy, and public scrutiny are taking a drastic toll on these celebrities’ mental health.
Moreover, because of the impact of the 21st century’s globalization, K-pop has evolved into an increasingly sexualized global phenomenon (Lie, 2014). As a result, these stars have to deal with a new category of devoted fans. For instance, in South Korea, you can hire a taxi to chase your favorite K-pop stars at speeds of 125 mph. One can imagine the sheer terror this must invoke in an eighteen-year-old individual. On the other end of the spectrum, K-pop’s fandom has given rise to an actively aggressive form of ‘anti-fans’ who have taken cyberbullying to a terrifying new level. Paracelsus Recovery notes that stars can suffer from immense loneliness because “a lot of their interactions are based upon their public image rather than their private self.” K-pop stars have a heightened experience of this, which Sulli tried to articulate when she appeared on The Night with Hate Comments and said that “my life is actually empty, so I feel like I’m lying to everyone by pretending to be happy on the outside.” Additionally, a growing number of K-pop stars are beginning to speak out and acknowledge cases of severe sexual violence from individuals in managerial and executive positions. Sexual abuse results in profound emotional scars for many years to come, often in the form of PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
Some journalists (Kang, 2019; Kretschmer; 2019) have argued that the issues which permeate K-pop culture reflect broader structural issues at work in South Korean society. In particular, authors suggest that the patriarchal values, the stigmatization of mental issues, and the immense pressures put on young people are hindering South Korea’s collective mental health. For example, South Korea has the highest suicide rate among all OECD countries, and there is a societal taboo towards seeking professional help. Both Sulli and Goo-Hara tried to open up on social media about their mental health battles. Yet, because of the prevailing stigma, both attracted hate as a result. Nonetheless, journalist Fabian Kretschmer notes that because of these tragedies, awareness is growing. The younger generation is now confronting both the prevailing mental health stigma and the pressures placed on young people. Kretschmer poignantly states that although change will take time, “it is unstoppable.”
Brierley, K. (2019). Suizide unter K-Pop-Stars: Wenn das Streben nach Perfektion tödlich ist. SRF: KULTUR. 10 December. Retrieved from: https://www.srf.ch/kultur/musik/suizide-unter-k-pop-stars-wenn-das-streben-nach-perfektion-toedlich-ist.
Kang, H. (2019). How a K-pop star’s death reveals the truth about our society. The Washington Post: Global Opinions. 15 October. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/15/how-k-pop-stars-death-reveals-truth-about-our-society/.
Lie, J. (2014). K pop: popular music, cultural amnesia, and economic innovation in South Korea. UP: California.
McCurry, J. (2019). K-pop under scrutiny over ‘toxic fandom’ after death of Sulli. The Guardian: Music. 18 October. 246. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/oct/18/k-pop-under-scrutiny-over-toxic-fandom-after-death-of-sulli.
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Omar, A. (2019). Showbiz: Depressed Sulli wanted to leave ‘Reply Night,’ SM slow to protect idol from malicious comments? New Straits Times: Lifestyle. 17 December. Retrieved from: https://www.nst.com.my/lifestyle/groove/2019/10/530773/showbiz-depressed-sulli-wanted-leave-reply-night-sm-slow-protect.
Paracelsus Recovery. (2017). How Sexual Violence May Alter the Female Brain. Paracelsus Recovery Blog. 19 April. Retrieved from: https://www.paracelsus-recovery.com/en/blog/how-sexual-violence-may-alter-the-female-brain/.
Paracelsus Recovery. (2019). The Link Between Addiction, Mental Illness, and Fame. Paracelsus Recovery Blog. 11 December. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@ParacelsusRehab/the-link-between-addiction-mental-illness-and-fame-caf414836163.
Paracelsus Recovery. (2019). The World’s Most Exclusive and Discrete Treatment Center — In Switzerland. Retrieved from: https://www.paracelsus-recovery.com/en/.
The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. (2019). Suicide rates (indicator). Accessed: 17 December 2019. Doi: https://data.oecd.org/healthstat/suicide-rates.htm.