While mental illness has slowly become less stigmatized to talk about in some countries, there’s still quite a bit of judgement around the topic in South Korea. In fact, as of 2019, the country was listed #4 on the list of nations with the highest suicide rates in the world, and a large contributing factor to this is the immense stress and pressure that students feel to succeed in their academics. Their mental health care system is also one of the less robust compared to other developed countries, with a study a couple of years ago showing that only 15.3% of people afflicted with mental illness receiving treatment.
Despite this, however, there are some K-Pop artists who have been vocal about their own struggles both in their personal life as well as through their music, which has helped the topic become more openly discussed in the community. Here are 10 songs from the music genre that are helping to get this conversation started.
1. “Paranoia” by Kang Daniel
Kang Daniel has said that the album that “Paranoia” is from, Yellow, is his most personal one yet, and that each song on the album was written based on a certain difficult period in his life. “Paranoia” in particular was particularly heavy for the soloist.
The theme in itself is heavy and distant, but since I’m resolving feelings I’ve personally felt, I wanted to express them honestly. I believe this is a feeling everyone can relate to, there’s only a difference in the extent and the depth… I’m thankful that I can display the feelings I’ve felt through music. The reason I put focus on such a dark aspect is because the majority of people are reluctant to bring this up. I wanted to confess my inner concerns and communicate them.
— Kang Daniel
With lyrics like, “An еndless fear, a terriblе night/Wasn’t with me back then/But they right here now,” and, “You can run, you can hide/But they always find/Spreading slowly in your heart/They live the dark,” the song can be understood well by those that have struggled with crippling loneliness and anxiety in their lives, and hopefully let them know that they’re not alone.
2. “Borderline” by Sunmi
Late last year, Sunmi confessed that she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder five years ago, and though it’s still something she deals with it to some degree, she’s been able to handle it much better through being prescribed medicine (which she was able to even decrease recently with success). BDP is a mental illness that is often categorized by unstable moods, varying self-image, diverse behavior, and a mix of depression and anxiety, and her song “Borderline” directly discusses her struggle with the illness.
Lyrics like, “I got too hyped, unstable eyes/Hands, hair, and words are all over the place/Feels like a bird is living in my head,” describe how Sunmi felt in the throes of her illness, leaving nothing censored in her raw depiction of living with BPD. Fans that also deal with mental disorders have spoken about how empowered and valid they feel by her coming out with her diagnosis with the platform that she has in South Korea.
3. “Holo” by Lee Hi
While “Holo” might seem like an unusual title for a song about loneliness, the word “홀로” (“hollo”) translates to “alone” in Korean. Feeling alone and loneliness are emotions that are almost universally felt by everyone at some point in their lives, which is what makes the subject so relatable, and was why Lee Hi wrote the song in the first place.
Personally, when I thought about this song, it comforted my mind. When I was singing it, I was hoping it could comfort people going through a lot of things. It’s chaotic lately, you know? The same comfort that I felt when I received the song, when I made the lyrics, I want to share. I was thinking about how loneliness doesn’t only take place when you’re alone. People can be lonely when they’re with others. When you’re feeling lonely, whether alone or with others, you should try to love yourself more by being yourself.
— Lee Hi
While the lyrics do discuss the feelings of loneliness, there is a hopeful side to the song as well, and a message of self-empowerment and self-love. “I’m too precious to/Just sit around and worry/Take a look inside of your heart without a cover/It’s okay to be yourself,” Lee Hi sings in “Holo”, encouraging her listeners who might be hurting.
4. “Numb” by CIX
While there are more soloists on this list than groups, CIX wasn’t afraid to touch on the subject of mental health as well! Even more impressive was that this was the group’s first comeback after their debut, with “Numb” diving into the subject of how pressured students feel to succeed in such a competitive society, something that is hugely impacting the youth of South Korea in particular.
This song is about the various problems that our generation is facing. It is meant to give hope and tell people not to give up.
— Yonghee (CIX)
“Now, it’s a war inside the classroom/Pitted against friends, bang!/Suffocating us with obedience to forced education,” they sing. But the song also encourages listeners not to go “numb” from the pressure they face: “Take a step and stand like the first time/Open your eyes like the first time/Dream your dreams like the first.”
5. “Wake Me Up” by B.A.P
“Wake Me Up” was written by the leader of the now-disbanded B.A.P, Yongguk, as their comeback song after he returned from a personal hiatus due to his panic disorder. The lyrics vividly describe what it’s like to feel trapped in your own mind, and the music video itself shows representations of people struggling with various mental illnesses.
The song starts out somber and hopeless, with lyrics like, “This is an endless tunnel/In darkness with no light/I need to find myself,” but gradually the message shifts into something more hopeful. “Right now, I’m giving it my all/Looking for the hidden truth/Wake me up, open my eyes,” the group sings near the end of the song, a clear cry that no matter how hard things are, you should never give up.
6. “Zombie” by DAY6
DAY6 is well-known for their heavily personal and honest lyrics about their struggles with mental illness, and “Zombie” is no different. The feeling of seeming like you’re going through the same dull motions everyday without any real purpose is one that many people struggled with (and still struggle with) during the COVID-19 pandemic, making the release time of this song especially appropriate.
“I feel like I became a zombie/Not alive, but I’m still walkin’/When the sunrise is upon me/I’ll be waiting for the day to pass by, oh why?” are the words sung in the chorus of the song, and while there isn’t a happy or hopeful end to the song, it still works well to help listeners feel that they’re not alone in experiencing these kinds of emotions.
7. “Dear Me” by Taeyeon
“Dear Me” is a song about self-love and empowerment, a contrast to some of the other songs on this list, but no less important. Taeyeon describes going through a dark period and coming out on the other end as stronger than before, able to rely on her own power to continue on.
From, “Look at me who endured the long darkness/I don’t hide anymore even if the night comes again/I have myself by my side,” to, “I love myself/I trust myself/The words that will hold me,” Taeyeon seems to almost chant a mantra of self-confidence and inner strength that anyone could benefit from hearing.
8. “Streetlight” by Changbin ft. Bang Chan (Stray Kids)
“Streetlight” is self-composed song by Stray Kids members Changbin and Bang Chan, which shares the story of someone struggling with emotional pain but hiding behind a smile and pretending everything is okay, making the comparison of the person to a streetlight.
If you ask someone for advice about your problems, even if that person can’t resolve everything for you, just opening up about your feelings makes your heart rest a little easier… To be honest, before I wrote this song, there was a time when I also really struggled on my own and wasn’t able to tell anyone. But by writing those feelings into my lyrics and recording this song, I felt like I had shared them with someone, which gave me a sense of relief.
“After the end of a lonely day/I’m standing in the air/In the middle of a lonely night/And try to smile brightly,” is the way he compares an emotionally closed-off person to a streetlight, discussing the struggles he feels about opening up and being a burden to others, which is something that a lot of people can likely relate to.
9. “Mist” by ATEEZ
ATEEZ is another group that is known for not shying away from the importance of taking care of one’s mental health, with “Mist” serving as a song to explain the feeling of anguish that one goes through when afraid of whether or not they’ve chosen the right path in life.
As one of the group’s slower B-sides, “Mist” hasn’t had as much attention as some of their louder and more powerful tracks, but the message it contains is one that everyone should hear. “What if, What if, What if/If it were the other way,” they sing uncertainly, wondering if their anxiety wouldn’t be there if they had chosen another path, “So please/Tell me it’s alright/In this anxious mist.” In the end, however, the sun will always rise and clear the mist.
10. “The Last” by Agust D
And finally, a list like this wouldn’t be complete without Agust D’s masterpiece of a song addressing mental illness, “The Last”. Agust D, or Suga, as he’s more commonly known as in BTS, has been very candid about his struggles with depression, sharing that he even once tried to commit suicide. Though the lyrics of “The Last” are very personal to Agust D’s own experiences, the fluctuation between feelings of hopelessness, confidence, self-hate, and trying to be strong is a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to live with mental illness.
The entire song tells a story, and it’s impossible to summarize the whole thing with just a couple of lines from its lyrics. If you haven’t listened to this song, or at least read its lyrics, it’s definitely worth spending the time to hear its message.