Cover Seo Yea-ji and Kim Soo-hyun in 'It's Okay to Not Be Okay' (Photo: Netflix)

Mental health matters and these popular K-dramas are raising awareness through entertaining yet educational storytelling

“All of us are crazy in one way or another," director Park Shin-woo of the acclaimed 2020 K-drama It's Okay to Not Be Okay once said. Yet, avenues through which the topic of mental health is explored are still far and few in between.

South Korea, a country where nearly 38 people kill themselves every day (the highest among the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's 37-member countries), has much room to grow when it comes to destigmatising the ‘uncomfortable’ conversations surrounding mental health. Its traditional and conservative framework has been set up in such a way that those with mental disorders are viewed as outcasts or failures, thus leaving most ignored, neglected, and untreated.

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Whilst discussions can’t be had, the South Korean entertainment industry has been stealthily sliding into screenplays and music to deliver messages of hope and support in order to shift the narrative and ignite change in how mental illness is treated. Here are seven popular K-dramas that both entertained and shed light on the elephant in the room.

1. It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

Moon Gang-tae (Kim Soo-hyun) lives with his older brother Moon Sang-tae (Oh Jung-se) who has autism. They frequently move from town to town ever since Sang-tae witnessed their mother's murder. Gang-Tae works as a caretaker in a psychiatric ward at every place they settle in. While working in a hospital, he meets famous children's book writer Ko Moon-young (Seo Yea-ji), who is rumoured to have an antisocial personality disorder.

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Circumstances lead Gang-tae to work at the OK Psychiatric Hospital in Seongjin City, the same city where they all lived when they were young. Meanwhile, Moon-young forms a romantic obsession for Gang-tae after finding out that their pasts overlap. She follows him to Seongjin, where the trio (including Sang-tae) slowly begins to heal each other's emotional wounds. They unravel many secrets, seek comfort from each other and move forward in their lives.

It's Okay to Not Be Okay received eight nominations with two wins (Best Supporting Actor and Television and Technical Award for costume design) at the 57th Baeksang Arts Awards. It also bagged a nomination at the 49th International Emmy Awards in the Best TV Movie or Miniseries category.

Stream it on Netflix here.

2. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo

Inspired by the life of Olympic gold-medalist Jang Mi-ran, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo is a coming-of-age series that centres on Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung), a promising young woman chasing her dream of becoming a weightlifting champion on an athlete college campus. When she develops a crush on her friend Jung Joon-hyung's (Nam Joo-hyuk) older brother Jung Jae-yi (Lee Jae-yoon), her dream comes to a crashing halt.

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At first, Joon-hyung teases her and goes along with her act, but she becomes self-conscious about her weight and ambitions, which causes her to rethink her entire life and sends her into a downward spiral of depression. As she grapples with understanding and managing her complicated feelings and emotions, Joon-hyung helps her to find happiness within herself.

Stream it on Netflix here.

3. Sky Castle

Sky Castle, which stars Yum Jung-ah, Lee Tae-ran, Yoon Se-ah, Oh Na-ra, and Kim Seo-hyung, follows the lives of four materialistic women living in the private, luxurious SKY Castle neighbourhood. The series centres on their ruthlessness in securing the successes of their families–their husbands to be more powerful and their children to get into top universities–at the cost of destroying others' lives and driving their children to have breakdowns and depression.

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The K-drama was met with critical acclaim, going on to become the second-highest-rated series in Korean cable television history. It also bagged multiple awards, including four at the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards: Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best New Actress.

Stream it on Netflix here.

4. Clean With Passion For Now

Jang Seon-kyul (Yoon Kyun-sang) has wealth and good looks but suffers from severe mysophobia (the fear of contamination and germs). He is obsessed with cleaning and even owns his own cleaning company. However, he meets a carefree and untidy girl named Gil Oh-sol (Kim Yoo-jung) after she enters his company as a new employee.

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Oh-sol has worked all sorts of part-time jobs while striving for a full-time job and does not have the luxury to date or clean. She gave up on being neat after facing the tough reality of the world and is known for always wearing her trademark tracksuit. But she has a bright personality and does not mind getting dirty. With the help of Oh-sol, Seon-kyul faces his mysophobia and also falls in love with her.

Stream it on Netflix here.

5. Hyde Jekyll Me

Gu Seo-jin (Hyun Bin), is a third-generation chaebol who runs the theme park Wonder Land. He seemingly has everything–looks, brains, and fortune. He is also in line to become the next CEO of Wonder Group, the conglomerate his family owns, though his cousin Ryu Seung-yeon (Han Sang-jin), who oversees Wonder Hotel is his rival for the position. Seo-jin has dissociative identity disorder (DID). Whenever his heart rate exceeds 150, another personality emerges and unlike Seo-jin's usual cold, cynical and ruthless self, Robin (the alternate personality) is kind, gentle and has a saviour complex.

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He meets Jang Ha-na (Han Ji-min), who is set to take over as circus master of the circus show at Wonder Land. They butt heads over saving the failing circus but eventually begin to develop feelings for each other. With the support of Ha-na, Seo-jin is able to overcome his disorder.

Stream in on Netflix here.

6. Good Doctor

Park Si-on (Joo Won) is a savant on the autism spectrum who was sent to a specialised care centre as a child, where he was discovered to have a genius-level memory and keen spatial skills. He eventually enters the field of pediatric surgery as a resident, where he is given six months to prove himself capable. However, due to his atypical mental and emotional condition, Si-on faces conflict from his peers and patients, who view him as childlike and unreliable.

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Most critical is the hotheaded surgeon Kim Do-han (Joo Sang-wook), who was requested by his mentor Choi Woo-seok (Chun Ho-jin, director of the hospital) to guide him despite his unwillingness to do so as he labels him a soulless robot of a doctor who relies heavily on his photographic memory instead of feeling what the patient needs. Despite help from understanding and fair colleagues like Cha Yoon-seo (Moon Chae-won) and Han Jin-wook (Kim Young-kwang), the hospital is a fierce and competitive world, and the challenges Si-on faces become only greater when he falls in love with Yoon-seo.

Stream it on Netflix here.

7. It’s Okay, That’s Love

Jang Jae-yeol (Jo In-sung) is an author of bestselling mystery novels and a radio DJ. Playful and a bit arrogant, he also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) due to experiencing childhood trauma. Ji Hae-soo (Gong Hyo-jin) is a psychiatrist in her first year of fellowship. Driven and ambitious with her career yet compassionate towards her patients, Hae-soo has a negative attitude towards love and relationships in her personal life.

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Once Jae-yeol and Hae-soo meet, there is much contention between them caused by their strong personalities and refusal to give in to each other. However, their bickering slowly turns into love and they begin to discover how compatible they actually are.

Stream it on Netflix here.

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