South Korea is currently the second country with the highest suicide rate and the champion in hospitalizations for psychological problems, according to the OECD. At times because of the sensationalist media’s fault, at other times due to lack of knowledge on the part of the community, psychological diseases are stigmatized within South Korean society, leaving hospitals for this type of treatment empty, and at various times with very precarious resources to treat their few patients.
Current studies advocate a “mental health literacy”, which consists of six steps: recognition of mental illnesses, how to obtain information about mental health, knowledge and belief in risk factors and causes, knowledge and beliefs about self-worth medicine, knowledge and beliefs about expert help and the stigma of psychiatric treatment. Jong Ik Park argues that if these six factors are complete, and the concept of understanding mental health can be applied and disseminated more broadly to the community, it will not only reduce prejudice, improving the public’s knowledge and attitude towards mental illness, but they will also recognize when mental illness occurs to themselves or to the people around them.
“And by intervening in treatment early, it is possible to prevent chronic mental illness,” says the study.
In South Korea, 28% of the elderly are depressed but think they are not, and within that number, 78% believe that being depressed is synonym of weakness, making the possibility of treatment for this portion practically impossible. It is believed that due to the ease of access to information currently, linked to a youth that spends almost all hours of the day connected, some of those six steps are already happening among the youngest, making them “literate in mental health”.
From social pressure for college students to enter one of the top three Korean universities, to getting a good job in one of the few hyperselective conglomerates, the emphasis on the need for professional success is inevitable for most Koreans. “There is a lot of fear about being different,” says Chad Ebessutani, an American researcher currently based at the Seoul Counseling Center.
Amidst all this social divergence in their opinions about mental health and its treatments, a young k-pop group chose not to adhere to “being equal”, and speaks directly with “the different”. Stray Kids is led by Bang Chan, an Australian of Korean descent who moved to Seoul alone at the age of thirteen, after passing one of JYP Entertainment’s international auditions. Trainee for seven years before finally making his debut, he speaks openly about the psychological problems he faces today. In weekly lives that he does at VLive, he does not hide about not being able to sleep, about his anxiety and that sometimes it is not easy for him, and he points out that it is “okay not to be well, Stray Kids will always be here for you.”
More recently Han, another member, had to withdraw from the group’s promotional activities after a panic attack when he was mobbed by fans at the end of a music program where Stray Kids performed.
With lyrics always talking directly with his generation, talking about struggles and difficulties, Stray Kids is currently launching a series on their channel, where each of the eight members composes a solo work.
Han presented ‘Close’, his composition in which he says he was inspired by the 2004 movie “Closer”. The lyrics openly talk about the insecurity of approaching the person he just fell in love with, but on an optimistic note also about how this new love awakens in him the hope of better days.
The second video was by Hyunjin, who created a contemporary dance choreography for a song by Billie Eilish, “When The Party’s Over”.
But the video that speaks directly to the month of May – known for being Mental Health Awareness Month – is ‘Streetlight’ by the group’s main rapper, Changbin with the vocals of leader Bang Chan. The lyrics of ‘Streetlight’ can be quite relatable to many of the fans and non-fans, talking about the vain attempt to sometimes hide their fears and pains for fear of appearing weak.
As the lyrics progress, there is a moment when he claims to have kept all this because he wanted to be someone else’s strength, as many end up doing. At some point he wonders if anyone is going to be his strength, and begs someone to ask if he is okay.
“I can’t confess this, I can’t confess all of that, and the pain that I couldn’t get out it starts to blame me. When I keep breathing, that stale air goes beyond being uncomfortable and I get suffocated … ” The creation of stress by holding within him something he would rather put out. In one verse he says that no one is looking at him, and yet he feels as if all eyes are judging him.
And if the lyrics weren’t indicative enough that Stray Kids is advancing on the issue of mental health, the MV’s symbolism says it all. Sitting in a dark, empty audience, Changbin has his pain represented by a dried plant in a pot, the branches pointing in different directions, until a blue ink begins to fall on the plant.
In Mukinbudin in Australia people started painting dry trees with blue paint to spread awareness about mental health. It all started when a 29-year-old took his own life after moving to Sydney for work. Jayden Whyte’s family started the action with the intention of spreading the message: it’s ok not to be ok. What once started as one of Jayden’s joke with friends, after wanting to bring a dry tree to life, is now a message of solidarity.
The story was probably told to the group through the two Australians in Stray Kids, Bang Chan and Lee Felix. In the MV, the ink covers the small dry branches, becoming the most prominent color in the entire photography. And it is not only on the dry branches that the ink falls, at the end of the song, sitting alone in contemplation, we see the ink dripping onto the rapper’s hand.
The final message – a phrase that follows all the MVs in the series – is “it hurts to be alone”.
The symbolism of pain represented through the dry plant, covered in blue paint, clearly indicates the request that many artists send in a still veiled way: get help. You are not, in fact, alone, however much it may seem. The importance of this MV and the message it seeks to convey reaches beyond the fans of the group, it is the matter mentioned by Jong Ik Park about “literacy in mental health”.
It is not possible to predict what else Stray Kids has saved for the public, but the possibilities for discussions on topics that are still little touched, and with a freedom that groups of large companies rarely have to create their own concepts and walk their own paths, chances are good surprises are coming our way.