It’s not difficult to see why Korean dramas are so popular. With a gorgeous cast that tackle multiple genres from romance to suspense, the platform is also ideal to spread the word about social issues like mental health. Here are some recent dramas that came out in 2020 that tackle mental health – some are in-your-face, and some require a little more analysis.
School Nurse Files (Sep 2020)
With a unique aesthetic and an almost manga-like execution, School Nurse Files is a deceptively simple tale about social issues told through layers of analogy in just 6 episodes.
It’s set in a school that’s a magnet for supernatural entities, residues of human desire, which are manifested in strange jelly-like beings. The story focuses on Ahn Eun-Young (Jung Yu-Mi), a new nurse teacher, who has a special ability to see these beings and uses a toy knife and BB gun to take them down. Together with Hong In-Pyo (Nam Joo-Hyuk), a Chinese language teacher who has a special aura, they work to eradicate these jellies.
The locked basement of the school – where most of the jellies reside – represents the struggle we all have in our hearts. Manifested from human emotions, the symbolism captures just how important feelings are for someone to properly function. When these jellies are defeated, they turn into innocent heart shapes, reminding us that nothing is inherently evil.
Flower of Evil (Jul-Sep 2020)
Flower of Evil is a psychological thriller that centres around Cha Ji-Won (Moon Chae-Won), a detective married to Baek Hee-Sung (Lee Joon-Gi) who seems like a loving husband and father. As the series progresses, we discover that he has a mysterious past and has been living as someone else for the past 14 years.
With each episode, however, we’re introduced to more characters who have their own mental issues, each a more deadly person to society than the previous. It explores the Macdonald Triad theory – will a child will be a serial killer if they like to torture animals or commit small acts of arson?
This 16-episode series is cat-and-mouse chase about revealing a serial killer, wrapped in a story that reveals how emotions can deeply affect our mental health.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (Jun-Aug 2020)
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay deals with a number of mental health issues, including Personality Disorder, Autism, and Dissociative Identity Disorder, and a number of characters have been through some sort of trauma.
The story centres on Moon Kang Tae (Kim Soo Hyun), a caretaker at a psychiatric hospital where his older brother is admitted, who meets an author of dark children’s books, Go Moon Young (Seo Ye Ji). Even though she seems cold-hearted because of her antisocial disorder, she takes a strong liking to Kang Tae. However, he can’t be bothered with romance because he’s devoted to caring for his brother, although their childhood past could be a key.
The popular 16-episode series starts off moody, but turns into a heart-warming experience as each character faces their fears and insecurities to emerge on the other side.
Forest (Jan-Mar 2020)
Kang San Hyeok (Park Hae-Jin) is a big-time investor looking to create a resort in a mystical forest, where he meets Jeong Yeong Jae (Jo Bo-Ah), a psychiatrist who became a surgeon due to her panic disorder triggered by her psychiatric patients.
Both suffer from traumas in their mysterious past and developed psychological distress as they become adults – Young Jae takes pills for her longstanding disorder, while San Hyeok experiences a crippling phantom pain. The drama also addresses mental health issues that manifest at the workplace – both San Hyeok and Yeong Jae are involved with the 119 Special Air Rescue Team.
One of the lessons imparted here is that you need to take care of yourself: “The eyes of others are not needed to determine my true self-worth. I, myself have to recognise that,” as Yeong Jae puts it. One of the drama’s best aspects is the backdrop – set in a serene forest, it’s a perfect antidote to hectic city living.
Notable older dramas that tackle mental health
While there’s been plenty of new genres coming out of K-drama these days, ones that tackle or mention mental health have been on the rise.
There are several dramas that focus on romantic relationships involving psychiatrists, like Kill me, Heal me (2015) which is about a psychiatrist who suffers from genophobia (fear of sex) and her schizophrenic boyfriend. It’s OK, It’s Love (2017) puts together a psychiatrist and a schizophrenic novelist, while in Kill Me, Heal Me (2015), a businessman with dissociative identity disorder (he has 7 personalities) seeks help from a psychiatrist.
Not all deal with psychiatrists. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016) sees the female lead suffer from depression and body issues. The boyfriend in Cheese in the Trap (2016) is a psychopath who exacts revenge on those who bother his sensibilities and easily manipulates others into doing things for him.
Of course, there are many more series that either focus on or contain characters struggling with mental health. Since talking about mental health issues remains something of a taboo in Asia, watching these K-dramas is just one way to raise awareness to a wider audience.