A Look Beyond: Drugs and Mental Illness in South Korea

When I woke up this morning, I was bombarded with still-updating breaking news stories about South Korean celebrity T.O.P being rushed to the hospital. Even as I'm write this, reports are scattered and somewhat inconsistent. The only verified news so far seems to be that T.O.P overdosed on prescribed medication and he's now in the ICU. Whether it was intentional or accidental has not been determined.

There's a lot of intricacies to this whole story, though, and they say a lot about how South Korea views and treats drug use and mental illnesses.

A Little More Context

There are a few things that took place before T.O.P's overdose that might play into the situation. In South Korea, all men ages 18-35 are required to participate in mandatory military service for a minimum of two years. T.O.P began his mandatory service in February 2017 as part of the police force. In early June, however, he was charged with marijuana use, which is illegal in South Korea.

T.O.P, the oldest member of South Korean mega-group BIGBANG, was hospitalized on June 6, 2017, for a presciption drug overdose.

The whole process as far as how the military handles prosecuted conscripts is a bit complicated, to say the least, but he was basically declared unfit for duty in his current position and is going to be transferred to another police unit, which has yet to be determined. (You can read more about all those details here.)

Technically, T.O.P could receive up to five years in prison for marijuana use, though I think his celebrity status at the very least will save him from the max penalty. To put that in comparison, the Texas maximum for the possession of one joint (less than one gram) is six months in prison and is considered a misdemeanor. 

With such strict laws, you could imagine what the public perception around marijuana usage is like. And no matter how used to being in the spotlight you are, receiving such an overwhelmingly public and negative reaction to something you did months ago can't be easy.

Add That to Mental Illness

It's been known for years now that T.O.P suffers from anxiety and depression. These are some of the most undiagnosed illnesses in Korea, where there's a huge social stigma against mental health. In 2016, The Korea Herald reported on a study which linked South Korea's extremely high suicide rate (about 40 deaths per day) to the victims' unwillingness to seek out professional help.

The nation's stigma against mental illness often makes it a topic which can't be discussed properly and leaves people feeling more isolated. In Western society, we have tons of celebrities who share their stories and how they got through or cope with their illnesses. Idols, who are at the height of celebrity status in South Korea, very rarely mention mental illness, let alone discuss the effects in depth. No one saying anything makes it hard for the necessary discussions to happen in order for the general perception to change.

The stigma can also put unnecessary pressure on celebrities, who might feel like they're unable to seek out the necessary help because doing so would cause their public image to tank, in turn destroying their career.

All of that comes down to one thing, though. If T.O.P's overdose was in any way related to his anxiety or depression, it will more than likely be viewed as an act of "extreme cowardice" rather than a very real result of a treatable illness being left unhelped.

BIGBANG's "Loser" features lyrics written by T.O.P and fellow member G-Dragon that talk about struggling with depression and other mental illnesses. "Loser" was released in 2015 and has over 130 million views.

A Side Note on Official Statements

As I mentioned before, there are already some conflicting reports about the overdose. Initial reports from T.O.P's agency, YG Entertainment, stated that he was found unconscious and was placed in the Intensive Care Unit for treatment. However, in a statement from the police department, he was never unconscious and is only in the ICU for isolation purposes and is not in critical condition. Further reports from YG Entertainment do not clarify his current status one way or the other, simply stating that he is still in the ICU.

These conflicting statements have left fans confused about the real situation. Some fans believe the police's report, saying that the initial news of T.O.P being unconscious was YG Entertainment's way of spinning the news in order to earn some sympathy PR in light of the marijuana scandal. Others think the police are trying to minimize the reports, since T.O.P was on standby in his unit's headquarters when he was found. The military strictly controls medication, so him being able to overdose, even on something he was prescribed, has made some curious about their supervision.