Passions and ObsessionsVideo

‘Noona’ therapy: I cope with the world through K-drama

‘A dose of it a day isn't about escaping your reality, but helping you live through it in your authentic way’

Jeanie Y Chang talks to people about mental health and K-drama through her Noona's Noochi platforms. (From Noona's Noonchi IG)

It was after watching a scene from A Discovery of Witches that I noticed my analogous situation with Diana Bishop, a central character on the TV series. She was thrown into an oubliette—a dungeon accessible only through a trapdoor in the ceiling—in an abandoned castle by her nemesis; I had fallen into an emotional oubliette by my own accord two years ago, propelled by profound grief and anxiety. While Diana flew out of her oubliette, I stayed in mine, counting the motes dancing in the slivers of light.

Talking about personal mental health challenges doesn’t come easy to me, unlike, say, voice talent Inka Magnaye, who shares her emotional vulnerability on Twitter. I’m awed by her courage, but I wondered what the likes of us were to do.

Artist-writer Babeth Lolarga hoisted me out, inviting me to a webinar, Coping with Grief and Compassion on Facebook in November 2020, where, as a guest speaker, she shared how she navigated unpredictable depressive episodes. Diagnosed as bipolar early on in life and battling bouts of grief of losing loved ones, she coped by talking about it and surrounding herself with supportive people like her husband, who built her a library, their “sanctum sanctorum,” in their home. She also indulged in her passions: writing and painting.

“You can transform your grief and depression. As Arthur Miller said, ‘Make your pain sing.’ The periods of darkness in your life are actually instructive. Just cling to your faith that you will wake up with little shots of light. Don’t force yourself out. You have to be gentle with yourself,” Babeth said in the webinar.

Heeding her words, I dove back into yoga and slowly read and blogged. Still, the dark spells came, aggravated by the lockdowns that made me feel even more forsaken.

This was all when I was living overseas. Moving back to Manila, I slipped into the K-drama world, oblivious of it becoming the latest tool in the therapy kit. It’s raised the skeptics’ eyebrow, but it’s proving it’s no fluke.

Jeanie Y. Chang remembers the smirks when people learn she employs K-drama in her practice 

Jeanie Y. Chang remembers the smirks when people learn she employs K-drama in her practice.  Like a teacher with her visual aids in class, the licensed marriage and family therapist uses relevant K-drama scenes touching on grief and childhood trauma, her specialities, in her one-on-one consultations with patients.

Credit: Netflix Asia/YouTube

An advocate for a better understanding of mental health, she finds K-drama pulling through with such series promoting mental health awareness as Ah-yi’s “parentification” in The Sound of Magic, Baek Yi-jin’s vicarious traumas in Twenty-Five, Twenty-One, Seon-ah’s clinical depression in Our Blues, and Gu’s substance abuse in My Liberation Notes. K-drama not only promotes awareness, but also various evidence-based coping techniques, she reasons, citing the deep breathing and meditation in Hometown Cha Cha Cha, talk therapy in Itaewon Class, art therapy in Our Blues, music therapy in Hospital Playlist, exposure therapy in Healer, and journaling in My Liberation Notes.

“Mental health awareness is about addressing the stigma surrounding illness and mental health conditions,” explains Chang on her IG. “It’s also about helping us understand what it looks like to normalize experiences so people know they’re not alone.”

Launched during the pandemic, Noona’s Noonchi is Chang’s digital “office space” on IG, TikTok, and YouTube, where she holds “conversations on mental health through the powerful story telling of K-dramas from the lens of cultural identity.” Noona is an honorific Korean title used to address older women, while noonchi means possessing the ability to read people’s moods and the room’s atmosphere.

Noonchi is my favorite word. I find it empathetic and compassionate when needed, with healthy boundaries, to pivot in a time of crisis to do what’s appropriate or makes sense,” she says in an IG reel, adding that she gauges what’s going on with her children with it, too.

From her digital offices, Chang encourages people to combat the crazy world by immersing themselves in K-drama’s stories of hope, healing, and happiness, and to experience the warmth of jeong (pronounced chung), “a Korean concept of affection, attachment, and kinship.”

“It serves a good balance of escapism and realism. A dose of it a day isn’t about escaping your reality, but helping you live through it in your authentic way,” she points out in another IG reel.

Using K-drama as therapy was spurred by a personal experience. Growing up, Chang disliked being Korean and rejected her cultural identity and heritage—until she saw herself in Jealousy. It opened her eyes to the coolness of Koreans, helping her better understand her Korean-American identity.

Van Ta Park, Ph.D is another proponent of K-drama therapy. The associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, began to use School 2013 to gauge the improvement in the knowledge and attitudes of Korean-American students towards bullying after watching the show, according to a report.

“When you speak the language in terms of the values held by communities in cultural groups such as Asians, they get it. They can relate to it,” said Park, a K-drama viewer, in the same report.

The Philippines has the third highest rate of mental disorders in the Western-Pacific region

Filipinos who believe that mental illness is shameful, that depression and anxiety don’t exist, have been left in the dark about mental health. The Philippines, in fact, has the third highest rate of mental disorders in the Western-Pacific region, with mental illness being the third most common disability in the country, wrote Nicholle Maravilla and Myles Tan in

Relatives with a mental illness are stigmatized because the opprobrious mark gets amplified when they’re rejected or disowned, Maravilla and Tan explained under the theme of familial problems, one of the three motifs heightening the “shamefulness” of mental disorders.

If mental health is swept under the rug at home, it’s not faring well in public either, despite the enactment of the Mental Health Act (Republic Act No. 11036) on June 21, 2018, and the Universal Healthcare Law (RA 11223) on Feb. 20, 2019. The former mandates psychiatric, psychosocial, and neurological services in all hospitals, and basic mental health services in communities. The latter strengthens the delivery of mental health services and promotes the rights of Filipinos using such services.

“Only five percent of the healthcare expenditure is directed towards mental health,” pointed out Maravilla and Tan, adding that the ratio of 7.76 hospital beds and 0.41 psychiatrists per 100,000 in the Philippines is lower, for example, than in Malaysia or Indonesia.

The mental health landscape turned grimmer with the COVID-19 pandemic. Calls to the National Center for Mental Health’s hotline reached 1,400 a month in the third quarter of 2020. People were anxious and depressed over the lockdown, job losses, and uncertainty. Only 400 calls were received for the first six months by the center when it was launched in 2019, said a report.

Eight percent of Filipino employees were driven to contemplate suicide because of anxiety and fear of COVID-19

Adding to the bleakness was a survey highlighting that eight percent of employees were driven to contemplate suicide because of anxiety and fear of COVID-19, according to a Rappler report. Of the employees, 61 percent were likely female, with 85 percent belonging to the 18-34 age group. The findings are from Suicidal Ideation from the Workplace, a study conducted by mental health firm MindNation, which surveyed 5,868 employees in Philippine companies from September 2020 to June 2021.

Credit: Netflix Asia/YouTube

Melissa Cruz—like myself—joined the league of Filipino viewers that ignited the renewed interest in K-dramas during the lockdown. Itaewon Class was a perennial favorite, garnering a 9,900 percent increase in searches during the mid-March to May lockdown, followed by Reply 1988 (up by 456 percent), and Crash Landing On You (CLOY, up by 105 percent), according to a survey on Filipinos’ viewing behavior before and during the lockdown by iPrice Group, an e-commerce aggregator, in a report.

“Watching K-dramas was a blessed escape for a time when no one could quite understand what was going on, and many of the characters were relatable,” said Cruz, a senior adviser for International Development Agency.

Her K-drama journey started with CLOY, while riding the point-to-point bus to work before the pandemic. The quiet ride enabled her to watch the popular series, finishing it during the March 2020 lockdown. Next, she watched What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim (“enjoyed the twist”), Pinocchio (“good back story”), and Prison Playbook (“beautiful story of friendship, love, and acceptance”).

In Bali, Indonesia, siblings Ni Kadek Eta, Ni Luh Evi, and Ni Komang Astitiningsih became introspective. K-drama gave them nuggets of wisdom to mull over.

Credit: Netflix Asia/YouTube

My Liberation Notes helped me to reflect on my own life. There’s always hope and liberation in every decision we make,” mused Eta, an English teacher, who also dreamed of the solid friendships depicted in Hospital Playlist.

‘There are K-dramas that are relaxing, like Hospital Playlist, and there are those that’ll keep you up at night like K2

Homemaker-entrepreneur Evi, who treated K-drama as a storybook with moral lessons to learn from, began viewing her life experiences from different perspectives. Astitiningsih, an immigration official, felt hopeful with the characters’ dialogues in My Liberation Notes, and even had an epiphany:  “No matter where we are, other people out there are experiencing the same thing as I am.”

Yet K-drama therapy comes with a caveat: It’s only one of the therapy tools in the kit, and not all K-drama series are mental health-approved. Gung-ho as Chang and Park are about K-drama therapy, they’re not throwing caution to the wind. Chang doesn’t force the issue, remaining selective with the K-drama scenes she uses or assigns to her patients. Park recognizes K-drama’s therapeutic value, but emphasizes it’s not a replacement for “cognitive behavioral therapy or antidepressants, or seeing your doctor.”

For Cruz, it’s a matter of “choosing your poison.” She said: “There are K-dramas that are relaxing, like Hospital Playlist, and there are those that’ll keep you up at night like K2. The flip side is that it can lead to extreme escapism, with people choosing to watch rather than meet deadlines or do things that’d be productive.”

Like everything else in life, too much of everything is bad. This applies to K-drama therapy where balance—not mindless watching—is the prescription. As Chang says, “K-dramas aren’t about escaping your life, but helping you live your best life.”

Read more:

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About author


She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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