We need to change the narrative surrounding suicide.
The 18th-century writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, "Live dangerously, and you live right."
He also wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel about a man who commits suicide after being rejected by the woman he loves. Afterward the public began noticing what was dubbed the "Werther fever": young men began emulating the character, creating a spike in suicide rates. Nowadays, we still observe the "Werther Effect," also known as suicide contagion. When a prominent figure in a community, such as a high-profile celebrity, dies by their own hand, sometimes it sets off a bizarre "cluster" of suicides. While the causes of suicide are complexly layered and diverse–though commonly attributed to mental illness, trauma, and societal pressures–the modern age of social media (dis)connection, celebrity, and Internet trolls means that mental health experts are noting concerning correlations between celebrity suicides and increased suicide rates, particularly within the insular, high-pressure world of K-pop.
"Suicide contagion is real, which is why I'm concerned about it," said Madelyn Gould, a professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. The phenomenon accounts for people reacting to news of suicide with suicidal behaviors or persuading others to attempt suicide. The recent deaths of Korean celebrities Sulli, 25, and Goo Hara, 28, as well as actor Cha In-ha, 27, could count as a "suicide cluster." (To be clear, the exact cause of Cha's unexpected death has yet to be released, but "suicide is strongly suspected"). Before them were Kim Jong-hyun, 27, Lee Eun Joo, 24, and Lee Hye Ryeon, 25, and other actresses and pop stars. When multiple suicides occur within the same three-month period in the same location, it's considered a cluster. At this point, it's well-known that the intensive, competitive world of K-pop (and the entertainment industry, at large) has damaging effects on mental health, self-image, and personal relationships. Young children are recruited for their talent and subjected to arduous training, pushed to meet unrealistic (and unhealthy) expectations and rigid schedules, in addition to being subject to callous public scrutiny online.
Added to that is the conservative culture of Korea, where suicide rates continue to rank among the highest of all developed nations. Strong stigma and taboo against mental illness persist in Korea. "The blame lies with South Korean society in general," said Ryu Sang-ho, a neurologist at Haedong hospital in Busan. "Many people with mental health issues are reluctant to take medication for fear of being seen as weak-minded. Mental health problems should be treated in the same way as a common cold. South Korean society needs to catch up."
Additionally, strong patriarchal values still set back Korea's gender equality. In 2018, South Korea was found to have "one of the thickest glass ceilings in the world" in regards to gender discrimination. Korea ranked 30th out of 36 nations evaluated by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the World Economic Forum ranked Korea 115th out of 149, illuminating its gender gap in terms of wage equality and earned income. Ryu added, "South Korean society is holding on to the idea that men must be respected and women are not deserving of respect, or at least not much. The media feed off that, so it's no surprise that the public don't have any sense of empathy towards these women."
So K-pop idols are caught in a terrible nexus of patriarchy, capitalism, regressive stigmas, and the dehumanizing disconnection of media, as K-pop's global takeover is largely attributed to streaming culture and the international reach of YouTube. But with such immense online popularity comes publicity problems. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, points out that news of an idol's suicide can particularly influence the public because "it's different from any other cause of death. When someone dies of cancer or heart disease or AIDS, you don't have to worry about messaging it wrong."
Indeed, The New York Times notes in "The Science Behind Suicide Contagion" that "publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people. Analysis suggests that at least 5 percent of youth suicides are influenced by contagion." One study looked at the public's suicide rates following 98 celebrity suicides and noted a slight but consistent increase in the immediate months afterwards. In particular, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that suicide contagion may increase due to: media coverage involving graphic details or images of grieving loved ones, repetitive reporting of the suicide, explicit description of the method of suicide, and dramatized–or even romanticized–accounts of the death as a form of escape from societal pressures or personal struggles.
Unless we as a global society can fix the plagues of online trolls, tabloid exploitation, and the money-grubbing capitalist machines known as record labels, our only recourse is to change the narrative surrounding suicide. Researchers urge the public and the press to focus on prevention resources and mental health services, such as The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the free, 24-hour service providing support, information, and access to other resources to people experiencing suicidal ideation or anyone who thinks they know someone experiencing suicidal thoughts. While we're grappling with the Werther Effect worse than ever before, we should also remember that Goethe wrote, "Correction does much, but encouragement does more." We need to–and we can–shed the pitfalls of Korean culture, with its glittery, high-tech veneer of perfection, with self-destructive habits at its core.
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"Rape culture kills."
South Korea has long held one of the highest suicide rates in the world (10th, according to the World Health Organization), a fact that's painfully resonated this year with the suicides of two popular K-Pop stars: first 25-year-old Sulli and now 28-year-old Goo Hara.
After Sulli was found dead in her home last month, public outpouring of grief included fellow K-Pop idols and the singer's famous friends, such as Goo, a former member of the girl group Kara. She described their friendship as being "like sisters"; in a livestream, she vowed, "I will live twice more diligently now that you are gone," adding, "Dear fans, I will be fine. Don't worry about me." But six weeks later, Goo was found dead in her own Seoul home, with police calling it a suicide and reporting that they'd found a handwritten note expressing her overwhelming depression.
While the world of K-Pop has been rife with scandal, from its factory-like production of girl groups and boy bands to its disregard for young idols' mental health, Goo's tortured last years also highlighted the pervasive effects of rape culture within K-Pop. As writer and activist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein pointed out on Twitter, "Rape culture kills," pointing out the negligence and egregious mishandling of Goo's highly publicized dispute with her abusive ex-boyfriend, Choi Jong-bum. Choi not only attempted to blackmail the singer but physically and (allegedly) sexually assaulted her. "It is known that she attempted to commit suicide in March this year after an ex-boyfriend attempted to blackmail her with threats of assault and the release a sex video," NBC News reports. "Amid the dispute, Goo's agency terminated her contract."
Rape culture kills. “But it is known that she attempted to commit suicide in March this year after an ex-boyfriend… https://t.co/gYI8cIVpTL— 🙅🏽♀️ Chanda Prescod-Weinstein 🙅🏽♀️ (@🙅🏽♀️ Chanda Prescod-Weinstein 🙅🏽♀️)1574609710.0
Details of the assault include Choi drunkenly attacking Goo while she was sleeping, prompting the singer to physically fight back against Choi's screaming assault. He was reportedly displeased with the resulting marks to his face and threatened to release footage of the two of them having sex in order to "make it impossible for her to pursue an entertainment career." Over the course of multiple trials, Choi was found guilty of "filming body parts without consent, assault causing bodily harm, intimidation (blackmail), coercion, and destruction and damage of property." He was not found guilty of sexual assault. Disturbing excerpts from the court documents include: "During the breakup process with his lover, Mr. Choi caused injuries to the victim as well as receiving injuries on his own face. He was angry about this and threatened to contact a media outlet to end the victim's career. By making her kneel and other such behavior, he caused serious suffering to the female celebrity victim."
Instead of the prosecutors' requested 3-year prison sentence, the Seoul Central District Court granted Choi a suspended sentence of three years of probation. If he violates said probation, then he'll receive his full sentence of one year and six months in prison. The prosecution was quick to condemn the court's leniency. On September 5, they appealed to demand a harsher sentence, stating, "Society needs tougher punishments in order to eradicate the kind of criminal behavior that Choi Jong Bum committed. We hope that during the appeals trial, the defendant will be appropriately sentenced according to the weight of his crime."
But it's worse than just leniency for a blackmailer; it's a testament to the misogyny that Korean women, even K-Pop idols, face in the public eye. Throughout the trial, Goo faced significant backlash in the press and online hate. In June, she took to Instagram (in a since deleted post) to say, "I won't be lenient on these vicious commentaries any more." She wrote about her struggles with "mental health" and "depression" and plainly asked people to stop leaving hateful comments. "Is there no one out there with a beautiful mind who can embrace people who suffer?" she posted. "Public entertainers like myself don't have it easy — we have our private lives more scrutinized than anyone else and we suffer the kind of pain we cannot even discuss with our family and friends. Can you please ask yourself what kind of person you are before you post a vicious comment online?" In her final Instagram post, she captioned a selfie of herself lying in bed with "sleep tight."
As Bloomberg reporter Jihye Lee critiqued, "Korean women find it more and more difficult to report crimes as victims because they see female artists facing even greater backlashes & trauma because how the public, police and the justice system respond to sexual assault, and that sends a clear message to all women in Korea."
Top trending on Korea Twitter is #최종범_처벌 or “Punish Choi Jong-bum,” who is Goo Hara’s ex-boyfriend that she is sui… https://t.co/qvHNHZEW8w— Jihye Lee 이지혜 (@Jihye Lee 이지혜)1574604527.0
Korean women find it more and more difficult to report crimes as victims because they see female artists facing eve… https://t.co/X8IFvgbOMC— Jihye Lee 이지혜 (@Jihye Lee 이지혜)1574605329.0
Now, Goo's death has fans petitioning for greater awareness and more responsible action in response to sexual assault, as well as mental health concerns. On Twitter, fans are channeling their grief into calls to bring Choi to justice and face a stricter sentence. Trending topics in South Korea are filled with remembrances of Goo Hara and even Sulli, while an online petition addressed to President Moon Jae-in has gained over 220,000 signatures, all demanding that sexual harassment receives a harsher punishment in Korean law.
I’m not living in a society where an abuser, a black mailer, a bully... a criminal will walk free when the person h… https://t.co/dVBRjX0Zie— MJ (@MJ)1574603107.0
The fact that men can abuse women and get away with it makes me sick, and that women are slut shamed to taking thei… https://t.co/SiA8dIGneb— Cherry 🌸 (@Cherry 🌸)1574612030.0
While Goo's death has inspired a long-overdue conversation about the oppressive misogyny that keeps too many Korean women from reporting assault, a small memorial sits at St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul where Goo's body rests.
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If websites truly cared about mental health, they would stop contributing to cyberbullying.
Trigger Warning: Su*c*de
Whenever a famous person loses a battle with mental illness, the media reaction plays out in a similar fashion, rife with memorials and reminders that suicide is preventable.
But how can a website act like suicide is a tragedy and mental health issues need to be taken seriously when they've directly contributed to the denigration of those same people, time and time again?
Now I want to preface this article by saying that I recognize a certain degree of hypocrisy inherent to writing something like this on a site that thrives on entertainment news and pop culture. But at the same time, I speak from my own personal perspective, and I feel strongly that this bears saying:
Gossip "journalism" that directs constant negativity towards celebrities is cancerous and dehumanizing. It contributes to a larger online culture characterized by cyberbullying and cruelty, and when someone commits suicide as a result, that culture and the people who propagated it deserve a large chunk of the blame.
Recently, K-Pop star and actor Sulli (Choi Jin-ri) passed away at only 25-years-old. From her time in the girl group f(x) to her later appearances in movies like Real and her solo single "Goblin" in June, Sulli stood out as an incredible talent. She was a vocal proponent of women's rights, advocating for pro-choice policies in Korea and shirking traditional idol boundaries by publicly dating and posting pictures with her boyfriend. In many ways, Sulli was a symbol of progress, fighting for her rights and self-agency even when those around her wouldn't, giving voice to mental health issues in a career where those issues are often suppressed.
In return, K-Pop gossip media and netizens (online commenters) bullied her mercilessly, criticizing her fashion choices, making fun of her body, and even sh*tting on her mental health. Then these same sites (Koreaboo, Allkpop, Netizen Buzz, etc.) that profited off her "controversies" turned around and profited off her death, spouting fake platitudes about mental health awareness.
For instance, Koreaboo, an English language Korean pop culture website, has been covering Sulli's passing incessantly while Tweeting about suicide prevention.
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress,… https://t.co/sPiysx1HtW— Koreaboo (@Koreaboo)1571043618.0
But fans have been quick to point out that Koreaboo had contributed to her online harassment multiple times. One would think that if they truly cared about her mental health, they would have listened when she talked about her own struggles and stopped contributing to her bullying. Except they clearly didn't.
@Koreaboo Or maybe if you stop doing this! https://t.co/7tM8WSdnjI— IGOT7 FOR GOT7🖤 (@IGOT7 FOR GOT7🖤)1571064133.0
Similarly, Sulli had reportedly turned to her management company, S.M. Entertainment, for help in regards to the constant stream of online hatred directed towards her, but their response was less than helpful.
"My life is actually empty, so I feel like I'm lying to everyone by pretending to be happy on the outside," said Sulli on The Night of Hate Comments, a variety show she co-hosted dedicated to celebrities reacting to cyberbullying online. "I asked around a lot for advice. They told me, 'Everyone has a dark side in their lives but they live pretending that they don't. Don't think of it as weird.'"
Sulli's words draw attention to the dehumanization that celebrities often face in the public eye; this is not an issue limited solely to Korea or K-Pop stars. Social media crowds and celebrity gossip sites alike tend to forget that the famous figures they're constantly harping on are, in reality, actual people with complex thoughts, feelings, and identities that transcend their public personas. Their fame does not make them impervious to emotional damage, and anyone who spends years subject to constant online abuse, bullying, and gossip is at risk of long-lasting mental health repercussions. There's also a pretty big difference between valid criticism and bullying––dwelling on someone's physical appearance and dramatizing their every minor action is absolutely the latter.
People can't spend years delighting in taking someone down for no better reason than drama and clicks, only to then feign sympathy when that person succumbs to the abuse. It's more than just hypocrisy; it's an absolute miscarriage of journalism.
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