Recently, the theme of “mental illness” has become a trend in Korean dramas. From Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Savant Syndrome in Good Doctor (굿닥터), psychopathy and sociopathy in My Love from the Star (별에서 온 그대) and Bad Guys (나쁜 녀석들), Schizophrenia, social anxiety, and Tourette Syndrome in It’s Okay, That’s Love (괜찮아, 사랑이야), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) in Heart to Heart (하트투하트), to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in Kill Me, Heal Me (킬미, 힐미) and Hyde, Jekyll, Me (하이드 지킬, 나), numerous types of mental illnesses have been introduced to the general public through the media. Considering that mental illness is still a very taboo subject in South Korea, I found this trend unexpected and interesting. What is the reason for this sudden trend?
I think the answer lies in the fact that South Korea as a nation is very, very sick. The recent ‘Healing Phenomenon’ is indicative of difficult times for modern-day South Koreans, as we live under constant pressure to keep up with our restless society. Despite living in one of the fastest growing economies in the world, or perhaps for that very reason, South Koreans are unhappy- we rank among the lowest in the Happiness Index. Modernization in South Korea has given rise to extreme materialism, and Koreans are obsessed with showing off their status and wealth. As Pope Francis stated last year during his visit to Korea, people in “outwardly affluent” societies often experience “inner sadness and emptiness” that “grow like a cancer”. Accordingly, research has shown that materialism is indeed linked to depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety. In South Korea, everything seems to be about competition- Who went to the best school? Who is wearing the most expensive clothing? Who is the prettiest? In such a competitive society, there is no room for support, and people are forced to hide their inner feelings in order to avoid being disadvantaged and looked upon as vulnerable and weak. According to Korea’s Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service (HIRA), approximately 665,000 people were treated for depression in 2013, 20% more than 5 years before that. Not only that, South Korea has had the highest suicide rate among all OECD countries since 2004. We live in a disintegrated society in which we are materialistically satiated but spiritually deprived; it is no wonder South Korea is suffering from a cancer of despair.
Though the mental illness portrayals in Korean dramas may not be 100% reflective of reality, they have been praised for helping reduce the stigma around mental illness. Dramas like It’s Okay, That’s Love (괜찮아, 사랑이야), Heart to Heart (하트투하트), and Kill Me, Heal Me (킬미, 힐미) have shown that love and support can help heal illnesses of the mind. Though love is not the treatment for all mental illnesses, it is definitely one of the first steps in the process. Empathy and support, which we lack as a society, are crucial for healing our nation.
I sincerely hope that this trend won’t just end as a fad- just another fleeting element of Korean dramas. I believe that the manifestation of this theme in the media is a sign that South Korea is becoming more educated about mental health issues; hopefully, it will open the way for destigmatizing mental illness in South Korea.
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