Trigger Warning: Article discusses suicide and depression. Please scroll to the bottom of the article for links and numbers to helpful sources. You are not alone.
On December 18, 2017, many heard the news that SHINee’s Kim Jonghyun passed away. The 27-years-old was more than just the leader of one of the world’s biggest K-Pop groups, he was also someone’s role model, a brother, a friend, a son, and a human being whose job was to entertain people. The latter is something many lose sight of as we put pop stars and other celebrities on a pedestal and treat them like royalty. However, they are just people who train for years— often giving up their childhoods— to do a job that many of us dream about growing up.
Early reports indicate that Jonghyun committed suicide based on text messages he sent and evidence at the scene. As of the evening of December 18, there is a translation of a note making the rounds on social and news media circuits. As a warning, it is difficult to read and provides insight into Jonghyun’s thoughts and the despair he felt prior to taking his own life.
The news of his death is particularly shocking because Jonghyun was a vibrant soul who wasn’t just known for his music: He was also well-known for his support of the LGBTQ+ community and for reaching out to those in need. As with any death of someone well-known and loved, the news is sudden, shocking, and hard to absorb.
Sadly, he joins a sad and not-so-lonely club of celebrities who’ve died tragically due to suicide. Many of us fail to see the signs of the dark monster of depression that often consumes them. For those of us who stand in the crowds engaged in fan chants and applause, we see the glamour and the sparkling façade of dreams achieved, but we fail to see the shadows tucked away in the deepest corners of the stage. As celebrities, they are expected to put their best faces forward despite what they feel on the inside. For fans, especially young fans, the happiness and charisma celebrities exude on-stage and during fan interactions are what many think is a 24/7-personality. However, we don’t see what it’s like on the inside—what the head and heart truly feel—on days when they’re home away from the cheers, media, and the hot glow of stage lights.
Here, this is where fans fail. Many fans cannot differentiate between the person and the star. Celebrity is nothing more than glorified cosplay. Fans celebrate the perfectly crafted personalities and images agencies create to keep fans happy and buying merchandise emblazoned with their biases’ faces. Fans feel they know the person personally and know everything about him or her while feeling as if they own the air a celebrity breathes. This often turns into abusive behavior and hateful comments vomited online by people who hide behind computer screens. This can be viewed as manipulative and controlling behavior to get a star to act and do exactly as fans dictate, but at the root of it, it’s venom that poisons a world that should bring people together and unite people in joy. Instead, it’s a bitter, stressful environment that not only wears on different fandoms, but on the stars people claim they love. No one stops to think about the person wearing the celebrity mask.
We do not see people. We only see what we want to see.
This is where society fails. People gravitate to the feel-good portions of life and shun the darkness. People fail to see human suffering because it’s not fun or pretty. People who struggle with mental illness know this all too well.
Sometimes, we’re forgotten or shunned because we’re an enigma; sometimes even our own friends walk away from us because our mental and emotional storms are too much to handle. For many, we’re not even human, so we put up a front to be loved, accepted, and humanized in a world that is cold to the struggles of others. The world made up of billions of people becomes a lonely place. A quote from the TV show Person of Interest (2011-2016) becomes a stark reality: “In the end we’re alone, and no one’s coming to save you.” We become the shadows people fear.
For those who dare to walk into our shadows, you are the light even if you do not realize it.
Today, it seems like the world is a dark and hopeless place. There is so much hate. Anymore, compassion is hard to find. As a society, we need to make more of a concentrated effort to be kind and to help others because we truly do not know what lies beneath in someone’s life. You hear the clichéd stories like, “that homeless man you see on the street that people harass? He may be suffering from PTSD following his third tour in Iraq. That girl you bully on the bus? She struggles with depression because her mother is dying of cancer…” Unfortunately, these are the realities millions of people face every day.
Those of us with mental illness are trying our best and working on surviving every day.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 300 million people worldwide suffer from some form of depression or mental illness. That’s close to five percent of the world’s population. According to WHO’s 2017 fact sheet, 800,000 people commit suicide a year; it is the second-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29. WHO also shares that fewer than 10 percent of this population receives adequate mental health care. This needs to change. It needs to change now. It needs to change fast.
Jonghyun’s passing, as expected, is hitting the K-Pop community hard, not just Shawols. While it’s okay to mourn the loss of his music, the loss of a leader, and the loss of a role model, it’s important to keep in mind that depression and suicide are much bigger than K-Pop. It is a global issue. It’s like tossing a stone into water. First, the ripples start small and grow to where the whole pond is disturbed. Eventually, the ripple reaches shore and affects those near it as well.
Sadly, Jonghyun’s death adds another layer to the mental illness discussion and the questions friends, family, and colleagues will inevitably ask: Were there signs? Did we miss something when we were with him? Did we not pick up on something the last time we talked? Did we love him enough? What if I checked my phone sooner? The what ifs will weigh just as heavily as the action. Fans and people closest to Jonghyun may scrutinize over every social media post, every performance, and his actions leading up to December 18 trying to find that one clue that lead to what occurred. Perhaps there may be something. Perhaps there is nothing at all.
Unfortunately, when a celebrity like Jonghyun passes, there is the fear of copycats from fans and those who suffer from depression and suicidal tendencies. Some of these fears stem from the news reporting the story, unhealthy idolization of the celebrity or friend, and a perceived deep connection to the deceased. For Shawols and K-Pop fans alike, it’s important to talk and reach out to someone if you are feeling sad or affected by the news. There’s no shame in talking to a parent, a teacher, a guidance counselor, or calling a helpline in a time of need. It’s important to keep in mind that even in the darkest of days, there is never any shame in reaching out for help.
Despite some fanwars that occur in the K-Pop fandom, the overall fandom is a tight-knit community that needs to weather this storm as everyone tries to grasp the suddenness of Jonghyun’s passing. This is a time to come together to help those hurting and those who are most volatile, especially with many K-Pop fans falling into the pre-teen/teen category. Now is the time to discuss mental health and to push for stronger awareness and care. Now is time to help eliminate the stigma.
As a society, people need to show more compassion. No one’s stories are the same: Everyone has a battle. Reach out to your fellow person and don’t be afraid to genuinely ask how that person is doing. Listen. Listen to their fears, their sadness, their hearts… don’t shun them or turn them away because you find them difficult or draining. Do your best to be there. Don’t assume that a smile means everything is okay.
While it’s not a cure-all for mental illness and depression, it’s a step in the right direction.
If you or someone you love is struggling with depression, there is help.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text Line: A 24/7 nationwide text-messaging hotline. Text 741741 to talk to a trained counselor.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255- Available 24 hours every day.
The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386. Crisis and suicide prevention services available to the LGBTQ+ community.
Trans Lifeline: Call (877) 565-8860. Crisis and suicide prevention services for trans and non-binary individuals.
Veterans Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 for help. Text 838255 for text-based services. This service aids veterans.
Kids Help Phone: Call 1-800-668-6868. A 24-hour service for youths 20 and under.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Assistance is available in French and English. However, they are not a crisis center, but they do have links to crisis centers in each Canadian province.
Trans Lifeline: Call (877) 330-6366
Youthspace: This service helps people aged 30 and under. Text them at 778-783-0177. The service is available from 6pm to midnight PST.
For a complete list of suicide and crisis lifelines available in many countries, please visit Wikipedia’s list of resources.
I’m glad we are learning to discuss these topics. Sometimes we as fans forget the real people behind the product.
Artists (such as BTS) are now beginning to be more open with these issues, and I think that in turn will make Stans more aware and in tune with artists.