In late 2012, I began seeing a guy who had lived in South Korea for a period of time. Because of his time spent there, a lot of his interests revolved around Korean culture, of which I had no familiarity with aside from Gangnam Style which was getting constant radio play at the time. In an effort to impress my new romantic interest, I asked my Asian culture-obsessed roommate to share any knowledge she had of South Korea. She suggested some foods I should try and some Korean dramas I should watch, and then pulled out her laptop and began showing me K-pop music. She showed me the videos to Fantastic Baby by BIGBANG, and Sorry, Sorry by Super Junior, and finally Sherlock by SHINee. They were all so bold and colourful, and their dancing was incredible! I was hooked.
I began consuming Korean pop music to the point where it became the sole genre I listened to, with SHINee becoming an instant favourite. They were made up of group leader Onew, maknae (or youngest member) Taemin, rappers Minho and Key, and lead vocalist Jonghyun. For fans of any group or band it’s common place to have a favourite member of the group, and for K-pop fans they refer to their favourite members as their 'bias'. In SHINee, my bias was 100% Jonghyun. His voice was otherworldly, with his range allowing him to hit incredible notes with impeccable control. He had a shyness to him, but also a genuine kindness to his sweet smile. He was impossibly gorgeous both inside and out. He was an amazingly talented person who seemed to have it all. Which was why it came as such a shock to find out he had committed suicide at the youthful age of 27 on December 18th.
Jonghyun is yet another unique talent the world has lost this year because of the unforgiving cruelty of mental illness. But perhaps what’s most sad about losing him and the countless others is that it was avoidable. In his suicide note, he talked about how he visited a doctor in recent months seeking help for his overwhelming sadness and the doctor dismissed his pleas for help, attributing what he was feeling to just being a part of his personality.
It amazes me when I hear people, especially professionals, dismiss other’s suffering. 'You shouldn’t need to medicate to deal with your problems.' 'You just have to learn to be tougher.' 'Someone always has it worse.' These responses to someone crying out for help have proven to be deadly time and time again, so why are they still a part of our vocabulary? Why are we still not giving mental health the importance in society it deserves?
Fuck Mental Health Awareness week. We need Mental Health Awareness year, or decade! We need to dedicate consistent time and resources to mental health. Where’s that money going to come from? Maybe from building one less £3 billion battleship (even more so when it's got a leak). Maybe from politicians lowering the cost of their £4 million a year lunch costs. Maybe from employers mandatorily offering their workers health care packages that include mental health.
But it doesn’t just come down to government programmes. It also comes down to society being open to talking. In the United States and United Kingdom it’s becoming more acceptable to say one is depressed and seek help, but in places like South Korea, suicide is the leading cause of death in a society that shames those who show weakness. Rooftops have to be closed off during exam season in Korea to prevent students from committing suicide over bad test grades that they feel will keep them from getting into a good university; essentially feeling like their lives are over. Just months ago an alleged suicide attempt from BIGBANG member T.O.P. was covered up by his record label, YG Entertainment, as an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Many feel he was trying to kill himself after bringing shame to his family and band mates after being discovered and then charged with smoking marijuana.
Society has long held an unhealthy obsession with perfection and alas, this proved to be too much for Jonghyun to bear. Is this tragic event going to be the catalyst for societal change in South Korea or will Jonghyun’s death be in vain? Only time will tell.
Founder and Editor of The Unedit