An apparent suicide note left by K-pop star Kim Jong-hyun — the SHINee singer best known by his stage name, Jonghyun — revealed the depth of his struggles with depression before he died Monday. The music idol’s death left millions of fans around the world in shock and forced a spotlight on mental health in South Korea.
Jonghyun’s lengthy, pain-filled note was posted Monday on Instagram by one of his close friends, Jang Hee-yeon, who is better known by stage name Nine9, of the South Korean group Dear Cloud.
“I’m broken from the inside,” the note read. “The depression that has slowly eaten away at me has finally consumed me, and I couldn’t beat it.”
Nine9 said she struggled with whether to make the note public but ultimately decided to post it after consulting with Jonghyun’s family. In her Instagram post, she added a long preface mourning her friend. Jonghyun had shared “deep and dark thoughts” with her in the past, Nine9 wrote, and she tried to intervene.
“In the end, it only delayed his passing and did not prevent it,” Nine9 wrote. “Beautiful Jonghyun, I love you so much.”
Yoon Dong-hwan, the head of Dear Cloud’s management company, MYmusic Entertainment, confirmed to Yonhap News Agency that there were discussions with Jonghyun’s family before making the undated note public.
“It’s not clear exactly when it occurred, but when Jonghyun sent this [to Nine9], it was immediately passed on to his family,” Yoon said, according to Yonhap. “After the tragic incident, we discussed whether or not to make it public. The family decided to reveal it.”
Jonghyun was found unconscious Monday afternoon at his residence in Cheongdam-dong, a high-end enclave of the Gangnam District in Seoul, and was rushed to a hospital, where he was later declared dead, according to a statement Monday from his record label, SM Entertainment.
Jonghyun’s sister told police that she received foreboding text messages from her brother alluding to a “final farewell” and called emergency responders late Monday afternoon because she feared that Jonghyun was going to take his own life, Yonhap reported.
Jonghyun broke onto the South Korean music scene in 2008, when he debuted as a singer in the five-member group SHINee. The boy band became one of the most popular groups in South Korea. Jonghyun, too, soon shot to fame for his stage presence and varied, emotive vocals. He later developed a successful solo career, as well, frequently collaborating with other artists and making appearances on shows such as “Saturday Night Live Korea.”
In his note, Jonghyun spoke of wanting to run away from his pain and told of the pressure of being in the spotlight for nearly a decade.
“The life of fame was not for me. They say it’s hard to bump up against the world and become famous,” he wrote. “Why did I choose this life? It’s a funny thing. It’s a miracle that I lasted this long.”
Jonghyun ended his note by asking people not to blame him: “What else is there to say? Just tell me I did well. Tell me that this is enough,” he wrote. “Tell me I worked hard. Even if you can’t smile, please don’t blame me as you send me off. Well done. You’ve really worked hard. Goodbye.”
The K-pop megastar was open about his mental-health struggles over the years. Jeff Benjamin, an editor at Fuse TV who has also been a K-pop columnist for Billboard for five years, said Jonghyun seemed very aware of his group members’ mental and emotional needs when they last spoke in August.
“He actually specifically talked about the importance of giving each other physical and emotional space,” Benjamin said. “Despite the circumstances of how he may have passed, which we still need to wait for the autopsy report, it sounds like he was very much thinking about mental health and how to best navigate that or survive.”
In May, Jonghyun told Esquire Korea that he had “showed a lot of depressive feelings” ever since he was young, according to a translation of the interview.
“But I don’t think I can keep living my life sustaining those depressive feelings forever,” Jonghyun told the magazine. “You might be able to go through the early-to-mid-part of your life with that kind of melancholy. But if you want to grow, you can only survive if you throw those feelings away. Unless you want to get trapped within yourself and die, you have to grow no matter how much it hurts — but if you stop because you’re afraid, in the end it’s inevitable that you’d remain in an immature state of mind.”
Later on in the interview, he added, “My feelings of depression and inferiority were always the ones that ruled over me.”
The singer’s death stunned fans worldwide and focused attention on mental-health issues, particularly in South Korea, which has the highest suicide rate among countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. According to 2015 OECD data, there are nearly 30 suicide deaths per 100,000 people in South Korea; Japan, Hungary and Slovenia follow with nearly 20 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.
In a recent report based on data over the past two decades, the OECD said it was concerned about the increase in suicides and psychiatric bed numbers in South Korea.
“Over the past 20 years, there has been a general trend of fewer psychiatric care beds in OECD countries, as mental health care has shifted to the community. Korea is the exception to this trend,” the report stated. “Korea’s long average length of stay for psychiatric disorders … raises questions about the effectiveness of treatment in hospitals.”
As news of Jonghyun’s death spread, SHINee fans — who call themselves “Shawols,” an amalgam of the band name and “world” — first responded with skepticism and disbelief. After SM Entertainment released its statement Monday confirming Jonghyun’s death, many distraught fans visited the hospital where he died to pay their final respects. Online, tributes poured forth from “devastated” fans and fellow artists. Even in the United States, Jonghyun and SHINee were trending on Twitter, and remembrances often intersected with another trending hashtag, #MyMentalHealthIn5Words.
Joyce Lee contributed to this report.