The death of Jonghyun in December stunned not only the K-pop world, but the wider music industry.
The 27-year-old member of SHINee – the K-pop equivalent of One Direction – took his own life, writing about his depression in a ‘final letter’ which was publicly shared with the permission of his family.
In the letter, Jonghyun wrote about the depression he suffered from ‘that slowly gnawed away at me’ and ‘eventually devoured me’.
He said that he wanted to escape, and wrote: ‘You asked why I live. Just because. Just because. Everyone just lives just because. If you ask why people die, they would probably say it’s because they’re exhausted. I suffered and agonized about it. I never learned how to turn this pain into happiness.’
Jonghyun also said that he ‘was not meant to lead a life in the public eye’, saying: ‘Why did I make those decisions. It’s ridiculous. It’s great that I even made it this far.’
While he may not have been that well-known to many in the Western world, you can’t underestimate how famous and loved Jonghyun was.10,000 fans visited his funeral hall over three days. The band’s albums have sold 1.3 million copies in Korea alone since 2008.
Suicide and depression is not a problem limited to K-pop. In 2017 alone, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden both took their own lives.
But in South Korea, suicide has claimed the lives of some of the country’s biggest stars, and is an epidemic in society.
In 2005, actress Lee Eun-ju, who starred in The Scarlet Letter, died by suicide aged 24. Model Daul Kim took her own life in 2009 at the age of 20. And in 2008, celebrated film and TV star Choi Jin-sil – nicknamed The Nation’s Actress – took her own life aged 39.
Even a former President of South Korea Roh Moo-hyun succumbed to depression, killing himself aged 62 in 2009.
In 2015, suicide was the number one cause of death for people ages 10 to 39 in South Korea, according to the Korean Statistical Information Service, while the World Health Organisation cited South Korea as having the tenth highest suicide rates in the world – and the highest number of an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country. 13,500 suicides were listed that year, or about 37 per day.
Speaking to Metro.co.uk, psychiatrist Dr Jinseng Park said: ‘In the 1970s, Korea became a highly industrialized society. The land was narrow and hard to live in. Because of this, students have been in severe competition from childhood by pressure from their parents.
‘It could be fortunate for them to be successful in these competitions, but if not, you will suffer from severe frustration and inferiority.’
This competition and pressure compounds itself further in the K-pop industry. Wannabe popstars, or trainees, are given binding contracts by management agencies and are put through rigorous training in dancing, singing, rapping, foreign languages and performing until they are deemed ready for their debut as ‘idols’.
Popular idols can become superstars overnight, and are subjected to difficult schedules.
Dr Park said: ‘There is a very competitive consciousness to compare with others. In that sense, young people can easily become depressed if they feel they have failed.
‘In the case of daily life of celebrities, it looks spectacular on the surface, but when you look inside, they may be subject to a lot of stress. Let’s look at the case of a trainee who want to become a K-pop star. His personal life is thoroughly controlled or managed by the management company. Using cellular phones could also be forbidden. In a world that is disconnected from the outside, they should devote to practice only.
‘They cannot help feeling lonely. Sometimes their age is between 18 and 20 years of age. It seems to be a life sacrificing everything for future success. If they succeed here as a rookie, they are fortunate, but if they do not, they can suffer from self-deprecation. In the case of a successful star like Jonghyun, it is fundamentally the same in that respect.’
Numerous K-pop idols have spoken out about their battles with depression and anxiety over the years.
Last June, AOA member ChoA announced she was leaving the band due to depression.
She said: ‘Although I was the oldest in the group, I’m still young. There were many times I wanted to cry during our promotions. I know you all liked me because of my bright image, however. I was crying inside, but I had to appear happy. This happened over and over again, and the more I forced myself, the sicker I felt.
‘To treat my insomnia and depression, I started taking medication and lessening my work load 2 years ago. However, I ended up stopping my activities as the problem wasn’t due to exhaustion. I tried to get back to work as I thought of everyone waiting for me, but I felt that if there was more negative attention due to my hiatus, this would hurt my group members even more.’
EXID member Hani often broke down during TV appearances, and left the music industry to train as a mental health counsellor.
And in a public letter to Jonghyun, Super Junior’s Leeteuk spoke of his struggle with depression, writing: ‘I also experienced severe depression, a difficult time where I thought everyday that dying would be better than being alive and breathing. In the army, they most likely saw that image of me as someone who was merely pretending, and the gazes of those [who thought that] made it even more difficult. For almost a year, I endured through this difficult time.
‘As someone who’s been through such a situation, I think it would’ve been better if there had been some solution that would have provided even a small way out…’
More: Mental health
In the wake of Jonghyun’s tragic death, there is more light being shone on mental health in the industry. However, it may take a societal change to tackle the problem.
Dr Park said: ‘Recently, it seems that there is a tendency in the entertainment companies to be more interested in mental health of trainees through Jonghyun’s case.
‘However, fundamentally, this seems to be related not only to individual problems but also to social problems. It is not likely to change easily.’
Metro.co.uk has contacted SM Entertainment, SHINee’s agency, for comment.