EXO Star’s Prejudice of Depression is a Korean Prejudice

It had been less than two weeks since Jonghyun, a member of K-pop group SHINee, died, when a popular K-pop idol came under fire for making insensitive comments about depression, the illness thought to have plagued Jonghyun’s final days.

At a fan event on Dec. 30, EXO member Baekhyun said, “Just to speak with conviction, I don’t understand why people get depression or insomnia… It’s not that I criticize that, and I know we can’t think happy thoughts all the time…but I hope my fans can always be happy,” according to an audio recording of the encounter. 

Another fan tweeted about a separate encounter with Baekhyun, in which he told the depressed fan to stop taking medication and “be happy.” Both the original tweets and the account have been deleted.

Baekhyun’s comments come at a particularly sensitive time in the K-pop world, where a debate is taking place about depression in the aftermath of Jonghyun’s death on Dec. 18, 2017. In his suicide note, Jonghyun mentioned his negative experiences with his therapist, who made him feel pressured to find an exact cause for his depression, holding Jonghyun personally responsible for his mental state, according to the letter.   

South Korea has a serious depression and suicide problem. It consistently has had the highest suicide rate among OECD countries since 2003. The National Health Insurance Service found in 2015 that approximately five million adult Koreans either have depression or are at high risk of depression. Yet, only a 22.2 percent of those diagnosed with a mental illness actually pursued treatment of any kind. The stigma against mental illness frequently prevents people from seeking treatment.

This isn’t a problem unique to South Korea. WHO estimates that over 300 million patients are affected with depression across the world, but more than half go their lives without ever seeking proper treatment. 

Both the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization describe clinical depression to be qualitatively different from general sadness. They advise that only medical professionals should give a diagnosis. Self-diagnosis and unlicensed diagnosis are dangerous. So is an aversion to seeking professional help. A quick look at verified medical information will tell you that depression is a serious illness, and not something that everyone can just “get over.”

Following the storm of criticism, Baekhyun  issued a personal apology on his Instagram. “The [Dec. 30] event was supposed to be about making my fans happy, but I felt that what was disclosed to me [by the fan] was quite serious…. I wanted to offer whatever words of support I could. I wanted to do it quickly because this fan supported me personally, so I thought my words would be helpful…. I spoke too quickly…. I regret that I said such things in that way, and I am scared that even now I might make a mistake. But I sincerely want to apologize…. I will become better, acting and speaking with more caution.”

His apology did not acknowledge his own underlying prejudice toward depression and its accompanying treatments, including medication. It is not the end of the world when a celebrity is misinformed about depression. We all do not understand certain topics as much as we should, and we’ve all made the age-old mistake of talking without knowing much. But the question of mental health merits extra caution. The problem is, Baekhyun’s ignorance and insensitivity isn’t just his problem, it reflects the prejudice and stigma against mental illness in South Korean society.


Cover image: Baekhyun, a member of popular K-pop group EXO, is under fire for his insensitive comments about depression. (Source: Hank Loner via Flickr, CC BY SA-2.0)



Ho Kyeong is KÉ's KOREA 101 editor. He is a graduate of Yale University with a B.A.in History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). His fields of interest are LGBTQ rights, disability studies, and race relations in South Korea.