CULTURE

"Suicide Contagion" in K-Pop Highlights Korean Culture's Destructive Flaws

We need to change the narrative surrounding suicide.

James Jean Illustration

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.

werther effect Werther illustration

"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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On This Day: Shakira Liberated Everyone's “She Wolf”

"I was in the studio in a bad mood that day, then I got inspired and went to a corner and I wrote the lyrics and the melody in 10 minutes. The image of the she wolf just came to my head, and when I least expected it I was howling and panting," Shakira said.

By Fabio Alexx

11 years ago, on July 10th, 2009, Colombian singer Shakira released the first single off her third studio album.

"She Wolf" is a synth-pop banger built on a B minor progression. It was, in many ways, an insane song, born out of the singer's own frustration and ennui.

"I was in the studio in a bad mood that day, then I got inspired and went to a corner and I wrote the lyrics and the melody in 10 minutes. The image of the she wolf just came to my head, and when I least expected it I was howling and panting," Shakira said.

Though the music was composed by John Hill and Sam Endicott, lead singer of post-punk band The Bravery, the lyrics were all Shakira's own. "[Shakira] contacted him (Hill), asking if he had any stuff," said Endicott. "We never had her in mind. We just made the thing independently of her, and then she liked it a lot, and she sang over it. She used some of the melodies we put in there and then wrote these crazy lyrics about being a werewolf. And that's how it happened."

Shakira - She Wolf www.youtube.com


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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."

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."


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.


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.