In the past year there have been several shows that had main characters who dealt with significant mental health issues. I think it’s an interesting trend. While the types of mental health issues vary (HJM and KMHM both deal with DID, but the symptoms are very different), there are some interesting commonalities in the way these issues originate and are treated, and the way characters react to them. I am only looking at shows with mental health issues which are NOT rooted in physical causes (e.g. amnesia, dementia), and which are diagnosed by a professional. The shows that will be discussed are: It’s Ok, It’s Love; Hyde, Jekyll, Me; Kill Me, Heal Me; Heart to Heart.
Origins in Childhood Trauma
The major psychological issues originate in a childhood trauma for all of these shows. In It’s Okay, It’s Love, Jae Yeol’s schizophrenia doesn’t start until he’s an adult, but the reasons for it are rooted in the traumatic experience of his step father’s death when he was a child. In Heart to Heart, both Hong Do and Yi Seok’s issues are rooted in his brother’s death, even if she didn’t remember what happened. In HJM, the trauma of abandoning his friend during the kidnapping eventually led to Seo Jin splitting into Robin. KMHM actually has the closest connection between the triggering event and onset of symptoms since Se Gi is born while Do Hyun is still just a kid in response to his father’s abuse of Ri Jin.
Guilt plays a huge part in the mental illnesses in all four shows. Seo Jin feels guilt for not saving his friend during the kidnapping attempt, but Seo Jin blocks his feelings and justifies his actions, which results in the creation of Robin. Hong Do feels guilt for setting the fire that killed her lover’s brother. Even when though she initially can’t remember the fire, Hong Do’s guilt is so internalized from her childhood that she presents symptoms. Meanwhile poor Yi Seok feels guilt over putting his brother in the barrel and sealing it, thus making it so his brother couldn’t escape the fire, and Yi Seok’s existing inferiority complex got massive as he tried to live up to the memory of his perfect, dead, older brother whose death he feels responsible for. Do Hyun feels guilt over not being able to save Ri Jin from his abusive father, both as a child and a little bit as an adult once he remembers what happened. Jae Yeol feels guilty for choosing to send his brother to jail instead of his mother. Every time he experiences a happy moment he feels increased guilt and harms himself.
Love Interest Involved in Trauma
The romantic interest is the source of or involved with the trauma in all the shows except IOIL. This is a strange one to me; I didn’t expect this to be a common theme in these shows. Do Hyun wanted to save Ri Jin as a child but couldn’t. Hong Do supposedly killed Yi Seok’s brother. Ha Na saved Seo Jin and then needed saving, which triggered the emergence of Robin. Only with Jae Yeol does Hae Soo have nothing to do with his childhood trauma.
Romantic Interest is the Source or Motivation for Healing
In IOIL, Hse Soo isn’t the source of the healing but she is the motivation. It’s only when Hae Soo presses him that Jae Yeol is finally able to confront and accept than Kang Woo is a hallucination. She is also the only love interest who goes through a period of denial about her lover’s condition. This is probably because she doesn’t find out about it until after they are already in love and have been dating for a couple months. Ha Na also doesn’t find out about her lover’s mental health issues until she already in a relationship, but she doesn’t go through much of a denial phase. I wonder if the difference is Seo Jin telling her vs Jae Yeol not even knowing he was sick. Hae Soo also has a phobia of sex rooted in her childhood guilt that is cured by her relationship with Jae Yeol. Ri Jin is everything to Do Hyun’s healing process. From the medical knowledge to motivation to being the source of the pain, her mere presence in his life compels Do Hyun to change, and due to Ri Jin’s nature that change is to heal. Hong Do goes to Yi Seok initially as his patient and he does help her work through all of her various issues. Their honest and open relationship also allows him the opportunity to heal and change as well.
Hiding is a common theme here. They all had different methods to hide from the world and their fears. Hong Do actually hid both by staying in her home and wearing a disguise or helmet when she did leave the house. Poor Jae Yeol even hid his illness from himself. Only in our DID patients was there an attempt to hide the illness from others. The Yi Seok’s parents and grandfather in Heart to Heart really went all out to hide the truth and refused to admit that it was doing more harm than good. Hiding, whether it be from yourself, others, or general knowledge just blows up in your face eventually.
Facing the Truth
The importance of discovering and then facing the truth was a key to healing all of them. Part of that was facing the past. This ties back into the theme of hiding. They had to go back and find the root cause to complete the healing. This is least true in Heart to Heart. Both of Hong Do and Yi Seok had already made significant progress before finding out the truth about the fire. Since they had been pretty truthful with each other from the first time they met they were able to make the most progress before finding out about their tragic past. Do Hyun and Seo Jin both had to face forgotten memories before they could start the healing process, and Jae Yeol had to face and accept the truth not just of his past and his step-father’s death, but of Kang Woo being a hallucination in the present.
Love Interest Is Mental Health Professional
I actually have serious issues with so many of these characters treating their patients, not from a story telling point of view, but from a medical ethics point of view. At least KMHM and H2H both acknowledged in show the whole doctor patient dating thing is usually a bad idea, and they had non-traditional doctor-patient relationships, while IOIL side stepped the issue by not having her be his doctor. It’s kill very squicky to me. I wonder if the US has stricter ethical codes and laws in that aspect than Korea, of if the shows were just playing fast and lose with another aspect of reality.
Isolation versus Connection
For all of these characters they were isolated in their illnesses and it is only as they forged connections, not just with their significant others, but with friends and family, were they able to make progress and heal. As they healed those connections became stronger. Jae Yool was probably the most connected as he had his mom, best friend, colleagues and ex-girlfriends, but it was the deeper connection with Hae Soo and her house mates that really helped propel him towards healing. Seo Jin didn’t have anyone except Secretary Kwon (Robin at least had CEO Min and Woo Jung), but over the course of the show gained Ha Na, the circus troop, Tae Joon, and finally connected with his dad and Robin. Do Hyun also had no one but his loyal secretary, but through Ri Jin he gained her parents and brother. Heart to Heart is kind of the exception to this. Hong Do is certainly less isolated at the end since in the beginning she only connected with Doo Soo, but Yi Seok started out close to his mother, grandfather, sister and mentor, but ends up loosing his close connection with his grandfather and moves out of the house. While his relationship with his dad is less antagonistic, Yi Seok still isn’t close to his parents and the only new relationship he gains is with Hong Do. Still, he needed that connection with Hong Do to be able to more forward and no longer be stuck trying to live in his brother’s shadow.
I found more commonalities than I expected when I started writing this post. I like the fact that truth and acceptance were such significant points in these shows; they’re great thematically. Most of the differences between these shows are in the details instead of the themes, tropes and trends.
Now I have a strong desire to see a show that has to deal with a mental health issue rooted closer to the present, and with the romantic interest not being involved in the cause. I might get half of my wish since Choi Moo Guk’s analgesia in Sensory Couple seems to be psychological instead of congenital, but it’s too early to tell yet.
I realize these are all Korean shows. I haven’t watched any recent shows from other countries where a mental health issue was a significant or primary plot point. Any one know of some?