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”.
For Father’s Day this year, he talked about what it means to have a complicated relationship with one’s dad.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
On the flip side, the pandemic did open up the community’s ability to get mental healthcare in different ways.
“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.”
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.