In this multi-connected social media age, the ever-accelerating news feed can render certain stories meaningless, almost trite. But there are certain incidents, certain stories that bring your world to a standstill - because however far removed the story may be from your own existence, it still hits a little too close to home.
One of the first instances in public domain to hit me so strongly was the shocking suicide of K-pop star and member of SHINee, Jonghyun. It was a deeply tragic death, robbing us of an inspirational figure while also eroding the surface of an industry that was famed for its gloss and glam.
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With a family history of mental illness - having lost a parent to suicide - struggling to silence the self-loathing noises in my head, it was a story that tore me apart. And fast forward to October 2019, the loss of former f(x) member – from the same company as SHINee – Sulli brought back that supposedly-forgotten twinge of loss.
Now, reading about the death of South Korean singer and former member of K-pop girl group KARA, Goo Hara, barely a month after her friend Sulli’s suicide, the sadness returns with a dose of anger at another completely avoidable loss of life.
In the days after Jonghyun’s passing, as his final thoughts revealed - via suicide note, left in possession of a close friend - the pressures he felt in trying to keep up with the fame that was thrust upon him, a light was shined on the darkness and the taboo of mental health in K-Pop.
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But that light was put out quickly enough – seemingly no further consideration given, or awareness raised – as the menacing shadow of depression that consumed Jonghyun at the age of 27 was allowed to return to claim the lives of both Sulli, 25 and Hara, 28.
Whether it’s K-pop or any other genre, music is - to me, and many others like me – a grounding force. A salve of soothing voices, poignant lyrics, and honest stories that reminds us we aren’t alone in our struggles. And yet the artists behind the music are often alone as they continue an unseen struggle with their own issues.
Discussions about mental health in music isn’t a new conversation, and a quick search indicates that some – if not most - of the industry is learning from the losses suffered. Whether the UK-based support-line and service Music Minds Matter, the Georgia-based Nuci’s Space or the collaboration between New York-based electro-pop group Phantogram and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are plenty of organisations aimed at destigmatising mental health and suicide.
Yet, in a disappointing yet unsurprising discovery, there was a lack of any South East Asian initiative. Disappointing, because it’s an established statistic that Asian countries like South Korea and Japan have some of the highest rates of suicides globally.
Unsurprising, because growing up in a culture that prioritises perfectionism and trivialises the pressure of actually achieving that perfection means constantly being on the receiving end of flippant advice along the lines of “it’s only in your mind, it’ll go away if you stop thinking about it” – a fact I can personally attest to.
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Ironically enough, a deeper search into the mental health support available to K-Pop artists, leads only to articles about BTS, their brave, raw lyrics about their own struggles and their well-known LOVE MYSELF campaign in partnership with UNICEF – all commendable efforts from seven young men brought up in a country where anyone suffering from mental illness is “deemed weak or crazy” - but the exact opposite of what I was looking for.
Yes, the barrier around discussing the topic of mental health is breaking down as artists like BTS and many others speak out extensively about mental health. Fans all over the world find solace in these open discussions, often citing artists, and their healing music, as “the reason they are still alive.”
But who supports the artists? Who gives them their reason to live? These are burning questions, left without good enough answers. Jonghyun’s death had been a shock, people hadn’t realised the extent of his hopelessness and were caught understandably off-guard; but can the same be said in the cases of Sulli and Hara?
Sulli – who shortly after her death was hailed as a “rare ambassador for mental health in Asia” - wasn’t treated that way when she was alive. What she was faced with when she was alive wasn’t praise, but mercilessly trolling and bullying online – seemingly against which no action was taken.
But Hara’s case is even more startling and saddening, knowing that she previously attempted to take her life. Taking a peek into her recent history will tell you that only last year Hara was embroiled in a toxic relationship with hairdresser Choi Jong-bum – who after being found guilty of assault and of threatening to circulate a sex video, received a suspended sentence, subsequently denying the allegations and filing an appeal.
Praised as strong and independent, Hara had fought back against the physical violence inflicted upon her, seemingly coming out of it a stronger person. But in May of this year, shortly after posting the simple word ‘Goodbye’ on her Instagram, she was found unconscious at her home in what was later confirmed to be a suicide attempt.
Refreshingly there were no cover-ups, it was reported exactly as it was – she tried to take her life and she survived. Hara’s survival and bounce back should and would have been an inspiring story had the world grabbed the chance to give her every reason to live. Yet all it has become is another tragedy, because six months later the very same world has failed her.
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Just as it had happened when Jonghyun’s passing was in the headlines – with conversations about the “dark side of K-Pop” emerging – history repeated itself with Sulli, before everything went quiet like it always has. With Hara, however, there seems to be some progress with an online petition signed by more than 275,000 people making the rounds, demanding that the Presidential office implement stronger punishment for revenge-porn offenders.
But the cynical side of me wonders why this wasn’t done when she was alive to see the support? And the side that’s been let down one too many times, is waiting for the buzz to die down, watching hawk-eyed to see if people will continue to fight for Hara?
It’s been two years, and three lives lost, but hidden away are so many others once revered in the world of K-pop, now forgotten in a list of those of that died young. There are some who crumbled under the pressure of being a K-pop idol, and others who lost hope of ever finding their place in the competitive industry.
A strikingly similar example is that of actress-turned-singer U;Nee and Sulli. U;Nee, ended her life in 2007 at the age of 25 unable to cope with harsh trolling, but instead of a change towards the better, Sulli was faced with the exact same circumstances despite the supposed progress of the years bygone.
But things can change. While charities and helplines like those based in the West are definitely the best bet to save people, it’s not the only way. Instead of tributes, condolences and sorrowful hashtags that follow after their death, praise them and tell them they’re needed while they’re still alive to see it.
As it stands, one loss seems to follow another in K-Pop, in spite of the fact that each of these people were big enough to have their every move watched, their every expression scrutinised – everyone missed their pain, and there’s no excuse for that. It isn’t about placing blame, it’s about assuming a basic responsibility.
No one is responsible for saving everyone’s life, but it is everyone’s responsibility to not be the reason that someone chooses to end their life. Music – both K-pop and otherwise- keeps my pain at bay, and I don’t want let that same pain consume the artist who gives me solace. With the smallest – or the biggest- of gestures I can muster, I want to make sure the music never stops – and you should do the same.
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Words: Malvika Padin // @Malvika_Padin26
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