Before he became a tragic face of South Korea’s mental health crisis, Lee Sun-kyun was one of the most famous and beloved stars of film and television in his home country and, ultimately, became an international symbol of its successful entertainment industry. Possessed of a winning smile and avuncular charisma, the celebrated actor boasted more than 40 film credits and over 30 television credits from his 2000 debut through the untimely end of his career. The circumstances of that end were more than just Lee Sun-kyun’s tragedy, hinting at a broader social crisis as part of what might be called South Korea’s hidden suicide epidemic.

Background: South Korea’s Mental Health Crisis

After emerging from the ashes of the Korean War in 1953, South Korea built its economy and global image on a business-friendly work ethic and a high-achieving culture focusing on excellence. This led to undeniable successes like the country’s remarkable rise to the forefront of the world’s manufacturing economies and, more recently, a growing global appreciation of its cultural offerings and the rising prominence of its film and television industries. Those successes are points of pride for a country that has simultaneously spent decades across a militarized border from an isolated and impoverished totalitarian state.

Those successes, however, have come at a price. South Korea’s high-pressure culture of achievement, combined with a limited welfare system and serious gaps in mental health literacy and delivery, has led to a mental health crisis of staggering proportions. Recent surveys have shown nearly a quarter of South Koreans are suffering from mental health struggles, but only about 10% are seeking treatment, in part because large percentages of the public fear being discriminated against or suffering from social stigma for visiting a therapist.

As a result, South Korea’s suicide rate — currently 24.1 per 100,000 persons — has consistently been the worst among the OECD nations over the past two decades. Some experts have called it South Korea’s “hidden suicide epidemic,” and the Lee Sun-kyun tragedy is part of this picture.

Conformity & Stigma: The Factors Behind Lee Sun-kyun’s Suicide

Lee Sun-kyun’s dazzling and diverse body of work included the Oscar-winning Parasite in 2020 and an Emmy-nominated turn in the Dr. Brain series on Sci-Fi in 2022. He was at work on a new thriller in 2023 when South Korean law enforcement began to roll out a massive crackdown against drug use that ultimately led to the arrests of more than 17,000 people, an initiative that would come crashing into the actor’s life and bring his work to an abrupt end.

The crackdown wasn’t just against narcotics or opioids but also against marijuana use and even just consumption of hemp plant products or poppy seeds, and the targets weren’t just drug dealers but also producers, importers and “habitual users,” all of whom could face prison terms up to a decade long. It was all tied into an intense public aversion to illegal drugs that was closely tied to South Korea’s achievement-focused culture. This formed the backdrop against which Lee was accused of drug use, and although he tested negative repeatedly and contended he was the victim of a blackmail attempt, a law enforcement leak swiftly immolated his reputation.

A media furor ensued in which Lee was denounced as a hypocrite and a “drug criminal,” retailers and brand partners swiftly distanced themselves from him or even sued him and even the Korean Communications Commission responded to the situation by declaring its willingness to ban “drug criminals” from public broadcasts. He was subjected to the practice of the “photo line,” in which suspects, essentially being punished by public opinion before their trial, are routinely grilled by the press prior to any official proceedings whenever they’re summoned for questioning.

It was after this process had been unfolding for months that Lee’s apparent suicide took place. It still isn’t clear to what extent Lee even presented an example of substance abuse or “habitual use” of illegal substances. His tragic death may yet, however, lead to a cultural and political reckoning for South Korean society while presenting some important lessons for all of us.

What, If Anything, Can We Take From This Tragedy?

For years, South Korea’s mental health and suicide statistics have been a matter of international concern. Various attempts at reform have, to date, produced little in the way of results. As a case in which a prominent international star and a source of Korean pride found himself abruptly exiled from mainstream society and pilloried for a perceived failure to live up to the culture of achievement, it may yet help to shed a light on a South Korea mental health crisis that can’t be allowed to continue.

Beyond that, the Lee Sun-kyun tragedy is a timely reminder in general of the potential price that stigma can exact, applied either to substance use or to the willingness to seek out help for a mental health crisis. The cost of stigmatizing important sectors of the human experience, or trying to deal with them exclusively through Draconian law enforcement measurements, may be counted in the precious lives lost long before their time. The harrowing campaign of humiliation and judgment faced by Lee Sun-kyun can serve as a signpost warning us against letting these trends take hold in our own society.

Don’t Hesitate to Seek Help

If you or someone you know is facing a mental health crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The compassionate team of professionals at Sunlight Recovery is always standing by to help you begin your journey toward better mental health and an improved quality of life. We pursue the best possible outcomes with a combination of individual and group therapy and a comprehensive evidence-based medical approach to treatment. Contact us today to learn more.