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Korean-Americans are seeking more mental health help than ever, buoyed by everything from BTS and viral TikTokkers like Nick Cho (pictured) and nudged by the stress of the pandemic. Photo: TNS

How Korean-Americans are tackling mental illness stigma with help from TikTok, BTS and Zoom therapy

  • TikTok’s Nick Cho is a part of a growing movement of Korean-Americans openly talking about their mental health, breaking a long-held stigma in the community
  • The pandemic, too, has sped up acceptance of getting help for feeling low – Zoom therapy feels less stigmatising to older people than having in-person visits

For more than 3 million followers on TikTok, Nick Cho is their “Korean Dad”.

He walks his followers through a back-to-school shopping trip and wonders if they should buy “anime backpacks”. He does a finger heart as he cooks Korean ramen for two in stone pots with slices of cheese.
Lately, he has also been a counsellor of sorts. He described what it is like to be “in a deep pit of sad” following 2021’s mass shooting in the US state of Atlanta in which eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed. He has helped people cope with loneliness, equating it with hunger.

For Father’s Day this year, he talked about what it means to have a complicated relationship with one’s dad.

Nick Cho, known as Your Korean Dad, has more than 3 million followers on TikTok. Photo: Instagram/@NickCho

“I see you’re suffering. I know that with all the stuff people are going through, you don’t always feel like it’s important. It’s just your thing to endure,” Cho, sitting in front of his backyard in Los Angeles in the United States, told his followers. “But I want you to hear that it’s not just your thing. Your pain is important because you’re important.”

Cho, a 48-year-old who came to the US from Korea in 1975 as a baby and first found fame through a coffee business, did not expect to open “Pandora’s box”, as he called it, spending hours reading and responding to people messaging him about their concerns.

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Cho is a part of a growing movement of Korean-Americans who are openly talking about their mental health and breaking a long-held stigma in the community.

Korean-Americans – buoyed by everything from BTS’s candour about their own struggles to Zoom therapy, and nudged by the stress of the pandemic – are seeking more mental health help than ever before. One clinic in Los Angeles’ Koreatown has seen its number of clients nearly double over the last four years.

That skyrocketing need – along with a scarcity of therapists competent in understanding Korean and Korean culture – has strained the community’s ability to get mental healthcare. Still, organisations and experts are optimistic that this shift in attitude about mental health will last.

Katherine Yeom (right) is the executive director of Korean American Family Services in Koreatown in Los Angeles. Photo: Katherine Yeom

“People don’t know they need help. They don’t know that they are drowning … they think it’s their lives,” says Katherine Yeom, the executive director of Korean-American Family Services in LA’s Koreatown. But the last few years, accentuated by the pandemic, have made them “realise that maybe they do need to get help”.

Koreans have long had a euphemism for seeking therapy or getting mental healthcare: going to a “white house” on a hill. Going to therapy, Yeom says, has long been associated with “people locked up in white clothes”.

The stigma, mixed with the “hustle” immigrant culture that emphasised work at the expense of self-care, meant Korean-Americans had sought far less professional mental health services than other groups.

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But as Koreans started to shift their attitude toward mental health five to 10 years ago, so did Korean-Americans. Panic and anxiety disorder became household terms, and Korean celebrities started to talk openly about their experiences of coping with mental illness.

Dr Oh Eun-young, one of the most prominent psychiatrists in Korea, now appears on at least four Korean variety and reality shows, counselling celebrities and families alike. She has even appeared on a K-pop audition show, serving as a counsellor and an “informal mum” to more than 80 contestants.

“That also is helping our Korean-American community open [their] eyes, that if there are people like Oh, they could help me,” Yeom says. “When they see TV, they see hope.”

Korean-language media outlets in the US have also programmed more discussions around mental health. Radio shows regularly feature people like Yeom, answering listeners’ questions about how they are feeling.

In TikTok videos, Joanne Lee Molinaro, known as the Korean Vegan, talks of her struggles with eating disorders, relationships and mental health as she cooks. She wants to create a dinner table atmosphere with her videos, she says.

“You don’t sit there at a dinner party and talk about adding one tablespoon of garlic … you talk about things that are memorable, funny, emotional,” Molinaro says. “It’s therapy for me. It’s healing for me and maybe it could be for you.”


When Lee Soo-jin, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, talked to her mother about her job, her mum once asked: “How are you going to work with crazy people all day?”

Lee’s mother believed the feelings associated with depression were just part of her immigrant experience. But listening to the Korean-American radio shows made it easier for her mother to acknowledge her symptoms and how to seek help, says Lee, the executive director at the California-based Yellow Chair Collective, which provides mental healthcare for Asian-Americans.

And with the rise of TikTok, younger generations of Korean-Americans have become much more open to therapy – and they are dragging their parents to seek help, Yeom says.

Lee Soo-jin is a licensed marriage and family therapist and executive director at the California-based Yellow Chair Collective. Photo: Yellow Chair Collective
Meanwhile, the recent rise in anti-Asian hate, as well as the months of isolation and remote schooling, have pushed many teens to breaking point, where they feel as though they have no choice but to seek help.

Katherine Kim Yung-mee, the director of the Koreatown Storytelling Programme for the Koreatown Youth and Community Centre (KYCC) in Los Angeles, has worked with young people since 2020.

Kim did not expect to be a counsellor, but she says her students were showing a lot of evidence that they were suffering from mental health issues. She ultimately asked to be trained by the centre’s mental health programme staff.

“It’s kind of like a confluence of puberty, peer pressure, social media, technology and the pandemic. All those things are happening at the same time,” Kim says. “Here, I thought I was starting a community journalism programme, but I needed a mental health protocol.”


Being shut inside one’s home for all times of the day, for kids and parents alike, meant they could not ignore each other any longer. That also changed the dynamics of family relationships, Lee says.

“Avoiding is part of our culture, and all of a sudden, we’re hit with the pandemic, and we can’t avoid each other any more,” Lee says.

On the flip side, the pandemic did open up the community’s ability to get mental healthcare in different ways.

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Initially, Zoom was a foreign concept – especially for older immigrants, since the application was not in Korean. But, as people became more accustomed to the concept of teletherapy, they felt it was more convenient and less stigmatising than in-person visits, Yeom says.

“For the senior who lives in a senior apartment [and] who doesn’t have a car, as long as she has a [mobile] phone, [the medical staff] can now provide psychiatric medications, and we can provide mental health services,” says Ellen Ahn, the executive director of the Korean Community Services in Orange County, in Los Angeles.

“We weren’t able to do that before Covid [and] that’s a powerful change.”

For Father’s Day this year, Cho talked about what it means to have a complicated relationship with one’s dad. Photo: Instagram/@NickCho

But the cultural dynamic of therapy remains in play. Therapy is often seen as a top-down process especially by older Korean-Americans, says Kang Na-yon, the children and families services division director at the KYCC.

“I still find a lot of people refer to counsellors as teachers,” Kang says. “Even if they seek treatment, there’s a cultural idea of what that is, that there is an authority who will give you directive, give you homework and tell you what to do.”

Still, Kang and Kim at KYCC say they believe the community has moved forward.

A couple of years ago, Kim spoke with some parents in Koreatown. Many of those parents were “totally at a loss” of what to do as they saw their daughters act out. Then, a few months later, Kim saw one of those daughters in a lift at KYCC, leaving from one of the centre’s mental health programmes.

“I knew they got the help they needed,” she says.