To the world, he was a young man who had it all going for him – fame, fortune, and a legion of adoring fans.
But away from the spotlight, Jonghyun, a K-pop superstar best known for being a part of boyband SHINee, was tormented by depression.
In December last year, he committed suicide, sending shockwaves through his home country and K-pop fans across the globe. His death prompted conversations – hitherto rare in South Korea – on the afflictions of mental illness in a country that bears the unenviable statistic of having the second-highest suicide rate in the world.
Compared to a nasty cut or broken bones, mental health problems are usually invisible, but their effects can be debilitating. In more serious cases, they can hamper a person’s quality of life and even lead to heartrending tragedy, as Jonghyun’s untimely passing has reminded us.
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It certainly reminded me of my own brush with feelings of despair, and how grateful I am to have come out of it relatively unscathed. And also with some personal lessons and learnings that I would like to share.
In Singapore, 5.8 per cent of adults have suffered from major depressive disorder at some point in their lifetime, according to a study conducted by the Institute of Mental Health in 2010.
In a letter to The Straits Times last year, general practitioner Quek Koh Choon raised his concerns at seeing more younger patients who are suffering from depression and burnout.
While it’s a topic that is less understood and not the most popular of conversation starters, mental health is important, and simply not something to put on the back burner. And when we are feeling worse for wear psychologically, there are ways to remedy our mental health.
Ways to cope and avenues for treatment are available, so don’t be afraid to reach out for them.
Ask yourself: How do I feel?
We live in a fast-paced world that demands so much of us, socially and professionally, and it is easy to get swept up in the flurry of the everyday without really taking stock of how we’re feeling.
How often do we ask ourselves how we feel and check in on our emotions as we go about our day? Emotions of all sorts, good and bad, can affect our mental health.
Being mindful of these emotions is key. Ask yourself: why am I feeling like this? What can I do with these emotions? Should I be experiencing different feelings instead?
While it’s not uncommon to experience feelings of sadness or to lose interest in the things we once enjoyed, consciously reflecting on our emotions helps us to notice when these negative feelings become more persistent.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a person suffering from depression will experience a decrease in ability to function at work and at home, both physically and emotionally. Depression, however, can vary in seriousness, from mild to severe. It is a common and potentially serious medical illness that can happen to anyone.
Triggers for depression and how I mitigated mine
There are myriad triggers for depression, and the condition can manifest differently for everyone. My own experience of feeling distressed was linked to a quarter life crisis where I felt as though I had lost my compass in life. A lack of fulfilment at my job and the pressure that I struggled with as a novice left me feeling confused and anxious.
The deep feeling of despair took a toll on my confidence, but it also became the trigger for me to realise that I was not doing well psychologically. I had became so enveloped in my own problems that I felt like I was falling into a vicious circle of self-pity and sadness, while being oblivious to others around me.
The realisation made me decide to expand my focus, and try to be more involved in the lives of others around me instead of fixating on my own problems, that seemed so huge at that point in time that I thought they would break me.
With time, that exercise taught me how to manage my emotions better and made me more resilient and confident to face up to surprise obstacles that life will throw my way.
I found that the small actions that we take each day to make another person’s day better can go a long way in making both ourselves and the receiver feel better.
Tackling melancholy with a conscious effort to bring some sunshine in our lives, and that of others, may seem counterintuitive but it’s a powerful exercise in understanding that we have control over how we react to a challenge or problem. Our problems may not magically go away, but mentally, that extra shot of empowerment and confidence can guard us from miring ourselves in negativity.
Seek professional help when needed
While what I have shared are some methods I found useful to strengthen my emotional resilience, mental illness is not the same for everyone.
And, if those negative feelings are persistent and proving increasingly hard to manage, it is absolutely important to reach out to a healthcare professional.
Experts encourage those who believe they have felt the symptoms for two weeks or longer to consult a psychiatrist, who would be able to evaluate their condition and put together a treatment plan that best suits them.
The doctor would be able to conduct a thorough diagnostic evaluation before proposing any treatment. They may ask questions and administer a form in order to identify specific symptoms, medical and family history, cultural factors and environmental factors to arrive at a diagnosis and plan a course of action.
Whether it’s due to the unfortunate stigma attached to it or a lack of understanding of the symptoms of mental illness, there are people who are reluctant to seek treatment.
But the reality is that depression is a medical condition and those who have it should give themselves the best odds of overcoming the illness. With proper diagnosis and treatment, the vast majority of people with depression will overcome it, and most depressed people do not require hospitalisation and only need outpatient treatment.
As someone who once found herself in a very dark place, I’m grateful that things have improved, and I’m now able to look back at that point of my life and use it as a reminder to take better care of my mental and emotional health.
And I hope that anyone who suspects they may be depressed or are showing signs of other forms of mental illness can soon say the same for themselves, with timely intervention and care.
If you are feeling distressed, or know someone who is feeling suicidal, get help immediately. Talk to somebody.
Here are some helplines.
Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221 4444
Institute of Mental Health: 6389 2222
Tinkle Friends (for children): 1800-2744-788.