How K-pop Stars Are Leading Mental Health Conversations for AAPI People and Beyond

Like the majority of the DIVE staff, the featured artists on Mindset are predominantly Asian or Asian American – specifically Korean or Korean American. Mental health advocates say this kind of Asian presence is imperative when it comes to reaching ethnically Asian audiences.

“The buzz words these days are representation matters,” says Joy Lieberthal Rho, a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in treating Asian American patients. “If you don’t see it, you can’t know how to be it. So it does matter that our kids, the children of Asia, see all permutations of people – the good, the bad, the ugly, the troubled, the saviors, the struggling, the victorious. Without seeing it and knowing others who look and sound like them, it can feel super lonely. And loneliness is a terrible tax on the psyche and the body.”

Epik High frontman Tablo has been talking about his own mental health issues for the past dozen years. The hip hop star had endured a prolonged online smear campaign that included hundreds of thousands of netizens directing hate at him, his wife and their newborn baby.

“The only silver lining I could imagine was that hopefully through this, there would at least be some awareness,” he told me in February. “And once I proved myself as truthful and didn’t succumb to this and kill myself, hopefully people would see that it’s possible to defeat this.”

Tablo has been very open about this period in his life. He addresses it in his music (his 2011 solo album Fever’s End references the torment he went through), interviews, and two separate well-received podcasts. He followed up 2021’s Mindset with the 10-episode podcast Authentic: The Story of Tablo on iHeartRadio this year. Working through his trauma publicly didn’t lose him fans. If anything, he said it felt like he gained more.

“Fans often make more rational judgments about their idols than people think they do,” says Jeeheng Lee, a culture scholar at Seoul’s Chung-Ang University. “They understand that no one can be perfect. Therefore, just because their favorite idol confesses their personal issues, they don’t get instantly disappointed, shocked, or turn away. They care more about how those outside the fandom will judge such confessions. Most of the reasons why fans are reluctant about an idol’s personal issues are not due to moral standards or expectations within the fandom, but to the negative reputation that the idol might get from those outside it.”

I ask Jay B if he faced these fears as well. He says that fans who didn’t know about his bouts of depression were very sympathetic and expressed their best wishes for him. They didn’t abandon him.

“If you really need help, I think it’s right to talk about it,” he says. “In today’s society, it can be something that everyone is going through. So I think it would be nice to be a person who can think about things comfortably and look ahead to the future.”

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