K-pop fans mourn the death of Korean singer and idol Kim Jong-hyun, lead singer of iconic Korean boy band, SHINee. The 27-year-old singer died on December 18 in what police officially reported as suicide. After being found unconscious in his Gangnam apartment, Kim was rushed to a nearby hospital only to be declared dead later that evening. SHINee’s managing company, SM Entertainment, released an official statement after the singer’s death stating it was both “heartbreaking and tragic.”
Evidence collected in the hours following Kim’s death suggests the singer struggled with depression and was ready to bring his battle to an end. SHINee’s lead singer reportedly left messages for his sister and friend before his death; the final message to his sister stated it would be his “last farewell,” while the message to friend and member Nine9 of K-pop girl group, Dear Cloud, revealed more of Kim’s thoughts and feelings on his life in the limelight and his ongoing battle with depression. In the letter, Kim wrote, “I am damaged from the inside. The depression that has been slowly eating at me has completely swallowed me, and I couldn’t win over it.”
Kim’s death, while shocking and unexpected, sadly does not signify a rare and singular event within the country. In Korea, suicide is the fourth highest cause of death among citizens, and, in 2016, 90 percent of those who committed suicide were diagnosed with depression and anxiety as a result of stress. Entertainers are not exempt from the same professional pressure consuming South Korean citizens.
However, the issues within Korea’s entertainment industry only draw attention to the fact that Korean society in general sees mental illness as a sign of weakness rather than a serious medical condition, a hazardous stigma to anyone dealing with depression. Kim writes about the stigma toward depression in his letter when referring to a conversation he had with his doctor. “When the doctor blamed my personality with a quiet voice, I thought it was easy to be a doctor,” wrote Kim. As a result of perceptions like those of Kim’s doctor, only 15 of the 90 percent of people who committed suicide due to mental illness actually sought professional help and treatment.
In contrast to South Korea, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and a chart from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention shows the suicide rate, however slowly, continues to increases year after year. By viewing suicide as a consequence of professional pressure, as in the case of Kim Jong-hyun, it could be said that the same flare of stardom led lead singer of the alternative rock band Linkin’ Park, Chester Bennington, to take his life earlier this year as well. While it would be nice to believe the American entertainment industry does not equally pressure its entertainers as does South Korea, the deaths of Bennington and Robin Williams prove contrary to that belief.
While the internet is teaming with answers and reasons as to why people commit suicide beyond professional stress (i.e. substance abuse), the top reasons for suicide lead to one common thread: mental health. There is an infinite universe of knowledge online revealing the symptoms of depression and the ways to counsel, or aid, depressed people; yet that vast online knowledge doesn’t account for the average one hundred and twenty-three suicides committed each day. The numbers just don’t add up, especially considering the influx of campaigns encouraging open conversation about suicide and mental health, or initiatives such as Mental Health Month, a campaign started sixty-eight years ago. So where is the disconnect between open conversations about mental health, or suicide prevention, and actively decreasing the amounts of suicides that occur?
Kim Jong-hyun’s final letter reveals a missing link in the conversation chain: community. The campaigns and initiatives do well in sparking conversation and increasing awareness, but the truth is people are concerned about suicide until the issue of mental illness is presented to them; then, the public turns their backs on the people most in need. This is in no way a statement declaring the entirety of society shuns those with mental health issues because, quite frankly, you won’t always be able to tell when someone is dealing with depression, but there are people who, when someone is actively seeking help or counsel, ignore or ostracize the person in need. As a result, a depressed person will ultimately retreat into themselves, feel isolated and turn to suicide. Campaigns will do little to no good if people don’t practice what they preach.
Reading the line about Kim’s doctor honestly angers me, and I hope it angers others as well. For a doctor, a trained professional, to say a patient is at fault for their mental state rather than helping the patient through their issues is, by all accounts, unacceptable. The scenario between Kim Jong-hyun and his doctor is one that I’ve witness before on a college campus, a setting in which, according to a 2013 American Psychological Association study, 36.4 percent of students deal with depression. There have been instances in which, college students isolated a peer who openly admitted to dealing with depression and anxiety and treated said student like a misfit; the student was made to feel as if they were an abnormality in a place where others dealt with the same issues.
On a campus that hosted campaigns prompting discussions about mental illness and directed students to counselors if needed—an environment that supposedly supported students with mental health issues—a student found themselves in a community that contributed to and amplified their depression. I’ve witness doctors and medical professionals, trained to help mental health patients, treat patients like abominations or lab animals. In cases like these, it’s only natural for the person dealing with depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue to feel as though they are to blame, a feeling no campaign is ever going to replace, especially if the community only supplements feelings of guilt and self-hatred.
The number of depressed people in the world isn’t suddenly increasing; the signs are just becoming more obvious, and while campaigns do their part in bringing the conversation to the forefront, no amount of posters, banners or decorated wrist-bans with catchy slogans will address the problem better than a community, whether it be family, friends, doctors, teachers, etc. Considering a recent song about suicide prevention that was nominated for two Grammys, yet people on the verge of suicide are still told to shake it off, fix their personalities or are ostracized by those around them, it’s time to realize substance abuse and career stress aren’t the only causes of suicide.