This morning, I woke up to the tragic news that K-Pop singer Jonghyun had ended his life with carbon monoxide poisoning. I didn’t know who he was until now.
After I saw some snippets of his music video, I felt a strong wave of sadness. There he was – a charming young boy with a thin, wiry frame.
He reminded me of other people who had left me with suicide.
- 0.1 A fellow waiter
- 0.2 A fellow foreign student
- 0.3 A close friend
- 0.4 What can we possibly do to help those who are suicidal?
- 0.5 1. Jong Hyun entertained thoughts of therapy
- 0.6 2. Jonghyun confided in his sister
- 0.7 3. Jonghyun’s friend made him talk about his feelings
- 0.8 4. Jonghyun started therapy
- 0.9 5. Therapy continues
- 0.10 6. Medications
- 0.11 7. Hospitals
- 0.12 8. Stigma of seeking treatment
- 1 Suicide
A fellow waiter
I was 18 then and working as a part time waitress at a six-star hotel in Singapore. There was a co-worker named Raj. He was tall, tough-looking and thin, with bloodshot eyes. He never made eye-contact with me. I was glad that he didn’t, and dreaded working with him as I simply couldn’t comprehend his wild lifestyle. Raj frequently worked extra shifts to earn extra cash. He went clubbing and boozing in between those shifts. We were worlds apart, and I was afraid of the unknown.
Then one time, a week passed without seeing him. I found out that he had jumped off a building and died on the spot. Tears filled my eyes. I wondered what tormented him so badly that he had to end his life there and then. If I knew he was suffering, I wouldn’t be so afraid to talk to him. But I didn’t know because his unapproachable expression concealed his suffering.
A fellow foreign student
Fast forward two years later. My junior, Kuy, who came to Singapore to study from a foreign country, had jumped off from the top of a HDB building.
This time I felt numbness and disbelief at first. Then, I felt angry too.
I felt angry with those who were close to him – his teachers, his country mates who went to the same school, his seniors from the same country.
How could so many people fail to notice how much he was suffering?
I missed it too. I had many breakfasts and lunches with him and his seniors in the boarding school. He never demanded anyone’s attention. He always carried a faint smile, and walked with a little hunch. I didn’t know because his smiley face masked his pain.
A close friend
Shortly after this experience, my close friend overdosed on medications. She called me in her incoherence many times throughout the night. She eventually survived.
I raved and ranted with her for hours on end over the phone. I chided her parents out of anger, though I knew they must have been in deep pain too.
From that time onwards, I took her words seriously. I “watched over” her well-being like a tiger mum.
But why did it take a suicide attempt for me to take her pain seriously?
She was a close friend. But she never told me she wanted to die. I just knew that she was unhappy about a few things. I never probed deeper since she changed subject fast whenever those uncomfortable topics came up.
What can we possibly do to help those who are suicidal?
All of them have one thing in common. They hid the gravity of their suffering under different masks – anger, smile, nonchalance.
If only they reached out for help. If only someone called them out – and tell them they needed help. It could have been me in the above 3 scenarios. But I didn’t know any better. I think I know a bit better now after I become a psychologist. Here, through a fictional account, I make an attempt to demystify
- why a sufferer would hide his pain
- how a sufferer can reach out
- how friends and family member can help a sufferer talk about it openly
- and what therapy process is like
You might benefit from reading this fictional account if:
- you are struggling with difficult emotions or
- your loved one is suffering from difficult emotions. It will highlight anxiety and uncertainties that you would probably feel.
But I would like you to know that we can still fail even with the kindest of actions, the best of strategies and the purest of intentions.
Below is my wishful fantasy. Let’s say the events started one year ago..
1. Jong Hyun entertained thoughts of therapy
I have a strong sense that Jonghyun knew that he needed medical help after I read his harrowing suicide note.
He was so lonely, so terrified of his memory lapses. I let myself imagine that Jonghyun googled for a therapist to talk to, maybe a clinical psychologist or a counselor like what we have in Singapore.
This process won’t be easy for Jonghyun. What would he tell the therapist/receptionist on the phone?
I’m a world famous pop singer, and I need to see you for therapy?
How about meeting up with her? Should I turn up in the clinic with the other curious eyes? How can I keep regular appointments when I don’t even know which country I would be in?
A million what ifs would go through his mind.
Maybe, he would call his sister for a start, perhaps even register for a session under her name?
2. Jonghyun confided in his sister
I imagine Jonghyun jokingly telling his sister that he must be mad, that he felt so much loneliness and emptiness despite all his good looks and success. He might have trivialized it and winked a bit. How charming he must have looked!
His sister could have missed the gravity of it as he downplayed it a notch. The conversation probably grew more serious after the initial awkwardness. I wouldn’t be surprised if she denied his pain in disbelief.
Most of us had denied the pain of people closest to us at one time or another. It’s always “easier” to try to convince my loved one and myself that what they are experiencing is transient, and that they will get over it somehow. This act comes from a place of wanting to comfort them. But by doing so, we deny our loved one a chance to share with us what really is on their mind. We might even unintentionally make our loved one feel ashamed for feeling “weak” or “exaggerating” their emotions.
After this natural initial shock and denial, his sister would probably try to find resources to help him. She would be able to brainstorm with him. She might manage to find a psychologist who can go to him, instead of him going to the psychologist. Then therapy would start.
3. Jonghyun’s friend made him talk about his feelings
Alternative to the above scenario, I imagine a friend of him directly asking him how he was feeling. This friend represents who I wish I was to my waiter colleague, my junior and my close friend. I wish the friend would tell him firmly that he needs help, and that he will be better off after that.
4. Jonghyun started therapy
The therapist might or might not be surprised to receive a phone call informing her that the great Jonghyun needed help. After recovering from her initial excitement, shock and some kind of pride that she was contacted to help a world-famous pop singer, she would now have to pick her brain on how she could be effective for him.
So many things to consider! Where would they meet? If she needed to travel with him, what about her existing patients? Therapy in the car or aeroplane while he was traveling from place to place? Wouldn’t they get interrupted by the make-up artists? Would she be slighted, not given due respect by his media team?
If she was a fan herself, things would get more complicated. She would need to deal with the part of her mind that idolize him. But I like to imagine his psychologist to be someone wise and kind – someone who would start to see the real Jonghyun with so much pain, and walk with his fragile ego through this dark times.
I like to imagine that all the logistic issues were settled and they managed to work out a good time and place to meet regularly. There must be so much negotiations on both sides. Either party would want to give up at many points. But I hope the therapist is stubborn and shameless enough in getting him back to therapy each time he wants to give up because of his schedules. She would advocate for him, no matter how intimidated she felt by him or his media team.
4.1 The First Session
I know from my personal experience of having gone through personal therapy as part of my training, as well as what my patients told me that meeting a therapist for the first time is a unique experience like no other. I imagine Jonghyun coming out of the first session with a renewed sense of hope, or at least knowing that there is another human being who would not deny his suffering, walk the dark days with him; and a sense that he did not need to carry all his burdens alone. I am filled with trepidation as I imagine this scene. I want this first session to succeed, for him to live, and to be in less pain!
5. Therapy continues
Let’s say Jonghyun got comfortable with the therapist for the first session, they would have many more sessions to go together.
Thinking out loud, maybe:
1) Jonghyun needed a more regular sleep schedule (and how impossible it is to achieve this!). I would leave it for him and his therapist to figure it out.
2) Jonghyun needed to reach out with his genuine feelings and thoughts to people close to him. From his suicide note, I am sure he did it in his own ways. Maybe the therapist and Jonghyun could explore more daring, more relentless ways of reaching out. I imagine how people would idolize him, romanticize him; and how difficult it is for Jonghyun to get genuine human connections as a result.
3) Jonghyun needed to know how strong he has been. He carries the burden of success since 15 years old. On this road to success, he has lost schoolmates, classmates, and anything that resembles the life of a normal adolescent in Korea. He needed to mourn his losses.
4) Jonghyun needed a proper medical and psychiatric assessment. My mind is filled with theories about why he is losing his memories (stated in his suicide note). Is it part of a brain disorder? Does he have depression or any other mental health disorders? Could it be just stress, hectic schedule or sleep deprivation? Is he possibly a victim of drug addiction that is so common to artists of all ages? Many effective treatments can be done if only we know the root cause.
Note: All of the above is highly fictional and based on probability of what someone in his situation might experience.
For someone so deep in mental pain like Jonghyun, medications and therapy at the same time would have been useful, if he was indeed suffering from a disorder like depression. The doctor would first have to explain to him that medications would likely have more benefits than possible harms for him.
He would probably have asked the doctor: Would these medications affect my personality? How about my singing? Is there a chance I can get addicted to these medications? Would these pills make me feel worse than I do now?
The doctor in my imagination would be fully trained and handle all his questions professionally and compassionately.
Even then, for someone like Jonghyun to “admit” that he needs medications for an illness, would have been a herculean task. He would ruminate again: What if my fans find out that I’m on medications? What would they think about me?
Maybe he will talk to his sister, his close friend, his family members and his therapist before deciding on a course of medication. It might get complicated. Opinions would differ and Jonghyun would hold off taking any medicine. Or maybe he would embrace any possibility of feeling better, including taking medication. To me, as long as he contemplated, it is good enough. As long as someone informed him that it was a possible course of action, it is good enough. He deserves to have this knowledge.
Many times in my clinic, patients told me that they were suicidal. Every time it happened, I entertained images of them jumping down, hairs on my neck stood up and my heart beat fast. I persuade them to let me call their family members, and encourage them to admit themselves to the hospital. Once I called an ambulance to take the patient to the hospital.
When I was working in an inpatient ward as a psychologist, I saw the other side – patients who were there according to or against their will because of unshakable suicidal thoughts. Some stayed for months, some for a few days. I saw many discharged in a much better state of mind. Every time one expressed gratitude to the team for saving his life, I teared.
I admit I hate having to hospitalize patients. Most of the patients are not keen to go. I let them go home as long as we can come out with a plan where they can be watched for the next seven days by a person who cares about them.
Maybe Jonghyun might confess his suicidal thoughts to his therapist and something could be done to keep him safe. If not the therapist, maybe, someone else would hopefully have picked up a wisp of his intent to end his life before he became uncontactable (sadly these people generally hide their intent very well). The someone, anyone, might have driven him to a nearest hospital, where he could have received proper treatment and closer monitoring.
If you suspect anyone around you, or you are contemplating suicide right now, please consider calling 995 immediately or go to your nearest hospital. Go talk to someone there before proceeding.
8. Stigma of seeking treatment
Last but not least, we have to talk about the big elephant in the room. A lot of people deny treatment due to perceived stigma. To mental health professionals, a mental illness is just as real as a fracture or diabetes. Nothing should stop someone from feeling better and working better through proper treatment.
Somehow, if Jonghyun could experience a well coordinated care by a team of family physician, psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor and mental health nurse, he might have felt that he actually didn’t suffer any stigma in treatment. Perhaps someday, when he is finally treated, he can share his painful experience of walking out of these dark valleys.
Mental illness is exceedingly complicated and difficult to treat. It is still possible that Jonghyun had tried all of the above, but to no avail.
If you are contemplating suicide and you have 5 minutes in your life, please read this great article. If you don’t, please:
- Call 995
- Call SOS: 1800 221 4444
- Walk in to ANY nearest Clinic/Hospital
- Walk in to IMH Emergency
- Talk to someone
The speculations about Jonghyun are at most speculations and they are not based on any facts. I am certain that everything has been done for Jonghyun by his close friends and family, but sometimes, the time, space and circumstances just doesn’t match up. My deepest condolences.
Nyein Nyein is a clinical psychologist (NUS) practicing at Zenith Medical Clinic in Punggol. Her Masters in Clinical Psychology thesis was on parenting, temperament and attempted suicide in adolescents. On top of her heavy clinical duties serving adult and child patients, she also works at children’s homes. In her free time, she advocates for mental health.
This article was first posted at https://mindtending.com/shinee-jonghyun-happy-alive-in-psychologist-fantasy/ and the original site is marked for deletion soon.