Sulli’s death sparks debate over celebrity mental health issues

Posted on : 2019-10-16 17:01 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
S. Korean entertainment companies recruit teenage stars who are still emotionally developing

The recent death of singer Sulli is the latest in a number of suicides by popular music artists since the 2017 death of Jonghyun, a singer with the boy band Shinee. Endless competition and mean-spirited online comments have been cited among the factors making the artists vulnerable enough to stress to take their own lives.

Kim Ji-hui is a clinical psychologist who has been counseling idols in training for the past six years. “Because the training process takes teenagers who are still moving toward psychological maturity away from their parents and pushes them into competition, they feel a psychological longing. That competition continues even after their debut, and they face a barrage of negative comments about trivial incidents in their everyday life. That harms their self-esteem and subjects them to feelings of helplessness and depression,” Kim explained.

“The world of entertainment isn’t a staircase that you climb; it’s a place where sudden success is followed by an abrupt fall. Idols, who debut at a young age, have to put up with the things that most people have a decade or two to work through during a contract that only runs for seven years, or sometimes as little as five or even three years. It’s no wonder they’re so vulnerable to attacks from the outside,” said Park Hui-a, a critic of popular music.

In order to prevent celebrities from doing the unthinkable, entertainment agencies and the government need to provide them with regular long-term counseling programs, experts advise. The Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) established a support center for popular artists and cultural figures in 2011 that has been partnering with entertainment agencies to provide counseling.

KOCCA counseling sessions increase more than fourfold in 8 years

Though there were only 40 counseling sessions in the program’s first year, that number has been steadily increasing since then, with 107 in 2013, 139 in 2015, 167 in 2017, and 164 in 2019 (as of October). Growing awareness of the importance of counseling among both agencies and entertainers has led to a more than fourfold increase over eight years. That importance was also emphasized during an informational seminar that KOCCA organized recently for parents with children hoping to become entertainers.

Entertainment agencies are also making their own efforts to care for their performers’ mental health. Most of the 10 large and medium-sized agencies contacted by the Hankyoreh said they were running character education programs to teach entertainers about the proper attitude and about how to deal with potential difficulties. And when entertainers complain about psychological problems, agencies are also connecting them with counseling centers or bringing in clinical psychologists to their office.

Agencies have no full-time counselors or regular counseling programs

But agencies haven’t taken the more systematic step of hiring full-time counselors or running regular counseling programs. Entertainers themselves are also reportedly reluctant to open up about themselves, afraid of rumors and concerned about their public reputation.

“It’s awkward to tell outsiders about internal affairs, and there are fears that the agency will get a reputation as a stressful place. Such considerations make us think twice about moving ahead with a counseling program,” admitted a manager at one agency.

“People typically send signals before they end their own life, which means that we can prevent suicide by taking regular interest in people and paying attention to their feelings. What you really need is steady and constant counseling,” said Kim Ji-hui.

“When teenagers are getting counseling, it’s essential for their parents to get counseling, too. In the same way, managers and supervisors need to be trained about how to take care of entertainers.”

By Shin Ji-min, staff reporter

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