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2014 Essay Winners

Eric Shan

Last month, I was fortunate enough to have been able to interview Kevin Breel, a comic who travels across the US to share his story about struggling with mental illness. One of the most vexing things he said that night of his performance was in response to me asking him why schools choose to focus intensively on bullying and stress (and their repercussions) but not so much on the topic of mental health.

“[…] [Mental illness] is something that’s like, ‘Oh you’re the problem? That doesn’t seem right.’  […] For this, it comes down to the individual person, and his struggle,” he responded.

At the time, I just recorded his reply down, and that was that. However, thinking back to what he said, I have come to realize that my high school community is not focusing on mental awareness enough. Recently, we have taken a good amount of action towards teaching students about mental health: inviting Kevin Breel to explore the topic through comedy, featuring articles about it in the school newspaper, providing support from counselors as well as links to helpful websites, and also adding suicide prevention to the freshman curriculum. I believe that these actions are beneficial but only to an extent.

Like Breel said, mental illness is an internal battle. Although aids like support groups are available, many students who suffer do not take advantage of this help because they fear judgment from their community. According to Sonia, a high school senior who has been suffering since she was 15, “The worst part of depression is not depression. The worst part of depression is the reaction at [our school].”

During school, I hear people use the word “depressed” without knowing what being depressed actually is or who might be affected by the word. Students go to events like Kevin Breel’s talk, but they do not stop and think, “What can I do about this?” They carry on with their lives, thinking that just because they are not affected themselves, mental health is not a big deal, but rather something that can be joked about. Students do not realize that there are people in their classes, on their bus, or even in their close circle of friends who are battling but are too afraid to speak up.

Mental health is a serious topic that we students sometimes take too lightly. Because of this indifferent attitude, close ones who suffer lose someone they can talk to, and more consequentially, they also lose confidence in themselves. We often think of those people as “time [bombs][…] and then never bring up the subject [of mental health] again,” says Sonia. Although my school is making progress towards complete mental awareness, students need to also realize that it is okay if people are flawed, and we should want to help them through this time. Rather than just LGBTQ rights and prevention of racism, mental health is something that we need to realize is also a real concern which needs our support as well.

Su Bin Cho

“Tag a friend who has this mental disability.”

In just four hours, this Facebook post received 110 thousand likes. I saw the same post copied and pasted onto many other pages appear in my newsfeed because so many of my fellow Korean friends were tagging each other in the comments. It read: “These days, you are disabled if you cant have a boyfriend or girlfriend” This sort of judgment happens every minute of every day.

In South Korea, the social networking service usage has reached a record-setting sixty percent of its population, ranking first in Asia and fourth in the world. Observing the internet landscape gives an idea of how the Korean society at large perceives mental illnesses. A vast majority of Korean ‘netizens’ (network citizens) do not seem to know that their lighthearted tag-plays are only widening their social distances toward mental illness. What is worse is that these ‘netizens’ who consider mental illness as a punch line constitute mostly of adolescents and young adults. This alone shows how the country has failed to provide public education on the accurate portrayal of mental health. Ignorant labels that deride people who actually suffer from mental disorders reveal that the stigma against mental illnesses will be almost indelible in the near future. Something must be done not just for a better self-concept of the mentally ill, but also to help progress into a truly awakened nation.

The radical remedy to this problem is examining the mode of thought of Korean society. Many of modern Korea’s problems can be traced back to Confucianism, which stresses homogeneity, interdependence, conservatism, and social hierarchy. As Korea underwent extremely rapid modernization and economic development, the clash of Western culture and deeply rooted Confucianism has produced disoriented mindsets of the people. Korea has the highest suicide rate among OECD members; people befriend their smartphones, not real humans; women show an obsessive reliance on plastic surgery to boost their low self-esteem. The society is ill because its people are psychologically unstable despite the extraordinary progress we have made at the national level. Being mentally healthy and embracing those with disorders are foremost virtues laid aside.

The key to reducing the social distance we have toward maintenance of mental health and the concept of mental illnesses is public education. This has to be done both at school and corporate levels in order to prevent subconscious disparaging of mental fitness both