Thanksgiving Monday I woke up to find my phone flashing with notifications about the passing of South Korean actress, model, singer, and songwriter Cho Jin-ri, better known by her stage name Sulli. Amidst the social media alerts was an email from friend, and fellow mental health advocate, Danny Kim: Could we do an interview about mental health and suicide awareness right away - celebrity suicides often lead to fans following their idols and Korea already has one of the highest suicide rates globally. Danny wanted to respond to an immediate need in a timely fashion and I am humbled that he contacted me to work together.
Danny and I met through his work on DKDKTV, a Seoul-based YouTube channel with 544K subscribers, that he and David Kim (no relation) operate, it is a fun, informative, and sometimes irreverent news channel for those of us non-Korean speakers who enjoy Korean culture and current events. They take on tough issues as well and aren't afraid of controversy to shed light on political and cultural issues. That's how we connected: talking about mental health and cyberbullying. A fourteen hour timezone difference, travel, and our respective work schedules had been making it tough to get our plans for working together off the ground. We now were in a situation where the need to respond outweighed scheduling and planning issues.
Sulli's passing is both the tragic loss of an individual, and also a microcosm of other social issues tied to mental health, including stigma, bullying, and misogyny. Sulli was a strong feminist performer who had been subjected to on-line hate comments and media criticism for going braless and speaking up about gender norms. She also was open about her mental health, including her long term struggle with social phobia and panic disorders. While she may have been a talented celebrity living a life that others idealize and fantasize about, she was really no different than any of us: she was human with frailties and strengths. Like other celebrities, Sulli lived in a fishbowl where the degree and frequency of negativity she experienced was at a level few of us could ever comprehend.
Fame and fortune are not insulators or protection from mental health problems. While strong income and financial security are tied to better mental health outcomes in general, by providing stability and removing financial stress and anxiety, there can be a tipping point, or a point of diminishing returns. It is that place where one questions their worthiness of the things they have achieved and acquired, because of what the feedback loop playing in their head is saying to them about their self-worth. A feedback loop that is additionally fed by a possible mental health diagnosis and then exacerbated by the negativity received from on-line haters. One's net worth or status may exacerbate imposter syndrome and mental health issues. Too often, we think that someone like Sulli has it made: Why didn't she just call a therapist? It's not like she can't afford it! What does she have to be sad about? I'd be thrilled to have that kind of money!
What is forgotten is that while her challenges may not be financial, she has to worry about being recognized while seeking such help in a way most of us don't, or consider what rumours will turn into the headlines because of seeking help. When's the last time you went to the doctor's office and had to disguise yourself for fear of your medical condition being tomorrow's trending social media subject? Or worried that anyone you express your feelings to could post things on-line to make a quick buck? When have your friendships become hard to make and maintain as you increasingly become surrounded by those for whom you are the source of their paycheque and access to the margins of star power and celebrity? Does your social media feed alternate between thousands of empty "Love you! Please Respond!" posts and just as many telling you to go away and die because you are a talentless hack? I'm guessing most of us get a pass on each of these psychological hells. My time as Health Minister opened me up to internet trolls, but they were minor leaguers by comparison.
Recognizing that we each occupy a different space and experience in this world, and that each of them comes with it's own challenges, and advantages, is important in mental health. This is just as true in corporate culture as celebrity and mainstream culture. Mental health is not a competitive sport. It is about the intersection of the social determinants of health and universal stigma-free access to supports when needed, by whomever needs them.
Fundamentally, it is about recognizing our humanity and providing non-judgmental acceptance, support, and compassion to each other. We each have our own accessibility issues to mental health supports and to overcoming stigma. In the same way that millions require a living wage and universal access to healthcare - which includes mental health care - someone like Sulli needed to live without her life being open season for haters. And to be able to access support without fear of becoming a trending social media topic.
She, and millions of other less famous people, endure bullying, on and off-line, and the burden of proof and consequences still tend to make things easier for the offender rather than the target. We are socialized to differentiate and denigrate those who are different from us: whether that difference is based on ethnicity, gender, finances, orientation, politics, neurodiversty, and any other category that humans contrive to distinguish between 'us' and 'them.' The conversation Danny and I had kept coming back to connection and compassion, as did the feedback from the viewers.
Do we need to fund and support mental health programs far better than we do? Yes! Do we need awareness and prevention measures? Yes! Do we need to end stigma? Yes! But to do each of these things properly and substantively, first we need to be compassionate. Without compassion, policy makers won't prioritize the money to fund programs and services. Without compassion we don't possess the awareness and humanity required for prevention. Without compassion we will judge and stigmatize others as weak and broken. If we don't change the way we see mental health - and each other - everything else is hollow and will not result in substantive change.
Borders and timezones, like social position and celebrity, are artificial constructs created by humans to label, sort, and ultimately divide and conquer. Humanity and compassion are innate and transcend those constructs. We need to step outside of how we are socialized to distinguish ourselves from others, and instead find the connections between us.
To the leaders reading this, the next time you discuss need for leadership development, mental health policy changes, or any other aspect of organizational culture change, ask yourself what your motivation is? Is it profit or productivity? Is it about bending the cost curve on your mental health and insurance costs? If those are your answers, you're missing my point.
Going forward, on any of these issues, from a place grounded in true compassion will get you further and do it better in the long run. Compassionate support of your team and clients will foster community and connection, and the other boxes will check themselves off in a much more organic and substantive manner because they will be rooted in something universally human. Compassion costs nothing and has the greatest ROI - it keeps people alive and mentally healthy!
The greatest act of suicide awareness and prevention any of us can engage in is recognizing and affirming the humanity of others, along with our individual and collective need for compassion. My question to you is, how will you move forward compassionately to improve your mental health and the mental health of those around you? What can you do to bend the compassion curve in your life and your organization?
Please watch and share the video below, which includes resources for suicide prevention and to support those in crisis. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZiU-lC60vo
Sharon Blady is the former Health Minister for the province of Manitoba, public speaker, mental health advocate, consultant and the founder of Speak Up: Mental Health Advocates, Inc. Learn more about her work at www.sharonblady.ca and www.speak-up.co.
Originally posted October 16, 2019 at: