LAST March 5, fans of the global Korean-born supergroup BTS were happy to see a special announcement on YouTube, declaring that the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) was extending its partnership with the septet for the “Love Myself” campaign. The campaign was launched on November 1, 2017 in partnership with UNICEF Korea and Japan, and aimed to protect young people against violence in any form.
Fans remembered how, dapper in their suits, members RM, Jin, Suga, j-hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook famously attended the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 24, 2018, and leader RM delivered a stirring speech about what it meant to “Love Myself”—the same title as a series of albums released by the band.
In the YouTube announcement, UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore noted, “BTS have helped young people all over the world open up about their experiences of violence and bullying, and encouraged love and kindness.”
Meanwhile, UNICEF Korea executive director Lee Key-cheol recalled how, after the group’s 2018 speech, he “felt a shiver” when a senior diplomat noted that the two major achievements of South Korea over the last 60 years were 1) democracy and economic development, and 2) producing BTS! It certainly made BTS Army (and #ArmyTitas like me) pop our buttons in pride.
Most notable about the recent announcement was how the boys responded—purely in Korean, fans noted (read: We really don’t have to speak anybody else’s language to be understood)—about mental health and the deeper meaning behind “Love Yourself.”
“I thought we were doing this for people around us,” said Jimin, “but I realized as time passed that many changes also happened within myself.”
It was unfortunate, as RM pointed out, that Suga, the band’s feisty rapper and prolific songwriter, was absent during the recorded announcement, as he was still undergoing therapy after shoulder surgery last November. Unfortunate, especially for fans like me, because Suga is my unimpeachable “bias” (K-pop jargon for “favorite member within a group”)—and if any member is the original poster boy for mental health, it’s Suga, a.k.a. Min Yoongi, who turns 28 years old on March 9.
The mental health of young people has long been a UNICEF concern, especially in this time of Covid-19, when isolation and uncertainty have put the youth under unprecedented levels of stress. The World Health Organization’s latest statistics reveal that globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents, with suicide as the third leading cause of death in 15- to 19-year-olds. A UNICEF youth survey during the pandemic, meanwhile, revealed, “A situation that generates deep concern and is a call to national health authorities is that 73 percent have felt the need to ask for help concerning their physical and mental well-being. Despite this, 40 percent did not ask for help.”
One of UNICEF’s suggested strategies for young people, in fact, as recommended by psychologist and New York Times columnist Dr. Lisa Damour, was “Focus on you.” “Focusing on yourself and finding ways to use your new-found time is a productive way to look after your mental health.” Just another way of saying “Love yourself,” in other words.
“My parents said they don’t truly understand me/I don’t understand myself well either…”
Great songs, good looks, endearing personalities, and mind-boggling dancing aside, BTS has broken the norm, especially in relatively conservative Korean society, where mental health was not discussed publicly until recently. Indeed, the sex, drugs, and party ethos of other bands has been set aside for messages on self-awareness, positivity, and standing up against haters, with lines like “You can’t stop me loving myself” from Idol (2018), or from Jin’s solo anthem Epiphany (2018): “I’m the one I should love in this world/My shining self, my precious soul/ I finally realize it, so I love me/Though I’m not perfect, I’m so beautiful…”
Suga, however—in the typical hard-hitting rapper style that was his musical roots as a boy growing up in Daegu, around 300 km from Seoul—wasn’t mincing words even before that. In 2016’s The Last, released in a solo mixtape for his tough-talking alter ego, Agust-D, he raps, “Around the age of 18, I developed social anxiety…At times I’m scared of myself too/Thanks to the depression that takes over me/And all my self-hatred…On the first visit to the psychiatric ward/My parents came up with me/We listened to the consultation together/My parents said they don’t truly understand me/I don’t understand myself well either/Then who would understand?/Friends? Or you? Nobody knows me well…”
It’s the kind of revelation that would make the gossip press go nuts, but Suga wasn’t about to play victim, and instead discussed things with startling insight. “Anxiety and loneliness seem to be with me for life,” he said matter-of-factly in an interview with Korean website Naver in 2018. “I put a lot of meaning in how I would work it out, but it seems like I have to study it for my entire life. Emotions are so different in every situation and every moment, so I think to agonize over every moment is what life is. By the lyrics, I want to tell people, ‘I am anxious, so are you, so let’s find the way and study the way together.’”
Fellow members recall how Suga would get anxiety attacks, shaking uncontrollably or even crying in the bathroom before big performances
Such agonizing manifested in ways he couldn’t hide from his fellow members, who recall how Suga would get anxiety attacks, shaking uncontrollably or even crying in the bathroom before big performances, such as backstage before their first appearance at the Billboard Music Awards in 2018. Two years earlier, when BTS was chosen Artist of the Year at the 2016 Mnet Asian Music Awards, Suga was a heartbreaking sight as he broke down uncontrollably onstage, and later revealed how he remembered all the hard work, and how he and RM would only dream of such moments.
In a wonderful (read: no condescension from the interviewer) interview with Grammy Museum artistic director Scott Goldman in September 2020, who asked why it was important for BTS to sing about their vulnerabilities, Suga took BTS’ message of empowering honesty and ran with it. “We didn’t really think about it that way, that showing our vulnerabilities was important, but we did start from the question, ‘Why aren’t people talking about these issues?’ Maybe it was the positive songs I heard as a kid. I didn’t want the music I listen to or the music I make to be violent, or to not have any message. I thought to myself, if the person who writes a song doesn’t talk about their story, then what else would that person write about? Then who would write it? I felt it was unfortunate that these stories were not being told.”
“Why so serious?…I flow the way water flows./At the end there might be something…”
Hence, his permanent bias-hood in the heart of this #ArmyTita living with mental illness herself. Suga may be half my age, but I have learned much from this young man who fought parental disapproval, lack of resources, and early hardships to pursue his dream of making music—and is reaping rewards beyond what he could ever have imagined. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s cute as a dumpling, by the way.)
As he approaches his 30s, Suga—more lightheartedly known as the band’s crankiest member who tells it like it is, runs like a grandfather, is perennially sleepy, and can’t start his day without a glass of iced Americano—appears to have come to terms with things he can’t change, however. Even in 2016, in The Last, he admitted to slowly accepting his nature and “address” as an idol who had to learn to dance, wear makeup, and play cute for fans, and not as the hard-core hip-hop rapper he thought he would remain.
Suga has made it easier for his fellow members to be themselves, as well. V wrote about how “I just want to be happier” in Blue and Gray for the 2020 album BE, created in the midst of the pandemic. For his 28th birthday last December, Jin released Abyss after admitting how he also suffered from burn-out and anxiety in the midst of the pandemic: “I hold my breath as I walk into the ocean/I face my beautiful yet sorrowful tears/It’s just another day in the darkness.”
Engaging chinks in Suga’s stoic armor have appeared. He loves dogs, hugged grandmothers during a BTS outreach project visiting elderly women who lived alone, and has become known as a loving hyung (“older brother”) with a soft spot for the younger members. V often can’t resist enveloping the ridiculously baby-faced Suga in a big hug, while in a memorable clip from their 2018 Saipan Summer Package, youngest member Jungkook said that while Suga often “pretends to be strong, I hope he’ll just tell us if things are hard for him.”
Suga’s rap in the more lyrical People from the second Agust-D mixtape in 2020 says it all: “Why so serious?…I flow the way water flows./At the end there might be something/Special life, ordinary life, each in its own way/What’s good is good, in the end/What’s good is good.”
So, what else is there to say?
Happy Birthday, dear Suga. This #ArmyTita understands, and is proud of what you’ve overcome and become. The joy you and BTS have brought to so many people is simply beyond measure.