The second COVID-19 wave was deadlier than the first in many ways, including the toll it took on our mental health. Dealing with the onslaught of mental health challenges due to lockdown, sickness, and fatigue made it especially difficult for me, a person who was not only actively covering the news but also undergoing therapy for pre-existing challenges. It was exhausting.
But I found solace in an unlikely corner of the internet — Korean dramas. Wildly popular across the globe for their OTT dramatic and romantic storylines, k-dramas are essentially the soap operas of the millennial generation. And in true, millennial fashion, these shows are tackling important topics, often considered taboo, like mental health. This has led to a normalization of mental health in daily conversations, which is a transformation for a country like South Korea with a fairly conservative culture.
Watching these k-dramas delve into mental health challenges in a sensitive and non-alarmist manner really helps one take their own challenges in stride and also, helps in being able to talk about it with others.
Here’s our roundup of the seven best mental health k-soaps, with all the drama, romance, et al for when you want a safe space and an escape:
It’s Okay To Not Be Okay
The story revolves around Moon Gang-tae, a young man who works as a caretaker in a psychiatric facility, and takes care of his older brother who lives with autism. At the hospital, he meets Ko Moon-young, a famous children’s book author, who is battling an antisocial personality disorder. The two fall in love, while struggling with their respective mental health challenges, and help each other heal.
This highly-rated show showcases the different facets of mental health, the reality of being a primary caregiver, and dealing with the stereotypes that come with having such challenges. “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” tackles the various mental health challenges with sensitivity and demonstrates that there is no ‘right’ way of coping.
It’s Okay, That’s Love
This show follows the lives of Jang Jae-yeol, a best-selling author and RJ, and Ji Hae-soo, a psychiatrist. While the two clash at first, they soon find comfort in each other as they open up and talk about their respective traumas. It is only later that they discover Jang Jae-yeol’s trauma is more significant than first thought, which forces them to make some tough decisions, despite discouraging reactions from others.
“It’s Okay, That’s Love” does a great job at normalizing mental health. It shows primary and secondary characters with a variety of mental health challenges, like schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, anxiety, depression, OCD, and more, in a way that does not single them out for it. It makes the mental health challenges a part of the story and not just the main focus of the story, thus demystifying a lot of misconceptions about living with mental health challenges.
Kill Me Heal Me
A rich businessman with dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder) meets a psychiatrist and falls in love. The show follows his struggles with managing the disorder and a relationship, while staying one step ahead of his ill-wishers.
Another highly-rated show, “Kill Me Heal Me” tackles the various aspects of dealing with dissociative identity disorder well. It uses humour and drama to explain how a person living with this disorder functions and the hurdles that come with it.
Park Si-on is a pediatric doctor who has autism and savant syndrome. He enters the highly competitive world of medicine and struggles to function as a successful doctor. While his medical knowledge is unparalleled, his cold social skills rub his colleagues and his patients the wrong way. The show follows his journey through being misunderstood, facing discrimination, and finally starting conversations on acceptance with other characters.
“Good Doctor” portrays living with high-functioning autism well. It shows the pitfalls, busts myths surrounding the condition and also normalizes it to demonstrate that living with autism is not always how it’s portrayed in the media.
Four rich families, living in the same neighborhood, harbour dark secrets, strained relationships and high ambitions. This show follows the lives of the children in these four families and the extreme pressure they are put under to do well academically and socially, by their parents and peers. It takes a look at the toxic relationships, stress and mental health challenges that come from living such a highly privileged life.
While this show does not tackle a specific mental health topic, it does show how depression and anxiety can easily breed in high-strung, claustrophobic settings. “SKY Castle” also talks about the long-term effects of the myriad of pressures teenagers face.
Heart to Heart
Cha Hang-do is a bright, young woman with crippling social anxiety that prevents her from stepping out of her home unless absolutely necessary. She meets Go Yi-seok, a psychiatrist, in hopes of dealing with her anxiety and eventually meeting the man she loves. Go Yi-seok comes with his own set of mental health challenges and the two form an unlikely friendship.
While romance and heartbreak take this drama forward, “Heart to Heart” seamlessly adds the difficulties of having anxiety and other mental health challenges into the narrative. It shows the kind of sensitivity needed to approach these challenges.
Hyde Jekyll, Me
This is another show dealing with dissociative identity disorder. Gu Seo-jin is a successful, good-looking businessman, next in line to take over a huge conglomerate. He also has dissociative identity disorder, stemming from past trauma. He unwittingly crosses swords with a young woman, Jang Ha-na, who eventually falls for him without fully knowing about his mental health challenges.
The show, while high on drama and romance, also brings mental health challenges front and center. “Hyde Jekyll, Me” shows the challenges that come with such a disorder are manageable, and does it without being preachy or using it simply as a trope.
If you, like me, are stuck at home wondering what to binge-watch next, grab your favourite snack and line up these k-dramas to keep yourself engaged. Sometimes it really is the simple pleasures in life.