How a Korean Boy Band Saved My Daughter

      BTS Saved My Life, Mom

      Many of us have watched, or at least heard about, the South Korean survival drama series, Squid Game, which premiered on Netflix last fall. For most, the dystopian hit was likely a long overdue first introduction to Korean film, which often broaches important topics like classism, corruption, and mental health. I’ve been a fan of Korean film for a while now, thanks to my 20-year-old daughter, Ellie. She also introduced me to another South Korean treasure: BTS.
      BTS, or Bangtan Boys, is a seven-member South Korean K-pop band that has steadily taken the world by storm. With over 43 million followers on Twitter, BTS has broken all kinds of records across music and social media since 2013, including 25 Guinness World Records. They have won over 450 music awards and have been nominated for over 650.
      Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook came in and out of Ellie’s life throughout most of high school, as casual friendships often do. As a parent, my limited exposure to BTS was also like those casual friendships—Ellie introduced them to me a few times, but I never really got to know them.
      After high school graduation, like most teens her age, Ellie headed off to college in the fall of 2019. By early spring of 2020, when the pandemic started to rage, Ellie returned home to wait out the COVID storm with the rest of the world. By the summer of 2020, Ellie’s mental health started to quickly decline.
      Witnessing my daughter sink further and further into depression over the last year has been excruciatingly painful. Her suicidal ideation, anxiety attacks, and moments of derealization lived in every wall of our home. Some days Ellie didn’t get out of bed. Many days she didn’t eat or interact with single soul. Too many days she would just sob inconsolably in her room.
      What do I do? I don’t know how to help her. I asked my close friends and her therapists this question almost daily. While Ellie was on several medications and was monitored closely by her team, I was the one in charge of keeping her safe. I kept the medications and sharps locked up. I never left her alone in the house. I stayed awake late into the night until I knew she was asleep. Sometimes I slept with her. I wanted to make sure she knew she was not alone. I needed her to know that we were in this together.
      You are doing everything right. Just be there for her, they said.
      As a researcher in pediatrics, I did not like this response. I wanted to be pointed toward peer-reviewed research papers about evidence-based strategies for suicide prevention. I wanted a concrete approach to help pull her out of her depression and daily episodes of derealization, to make her well. Our access to resources was also drastically reduced during the pandemic. In so many ways, we were on our own.
      As a parent, I was also in desperate need of support. I thought I understood depression. Ellie had suffered from depression and anxiety since middle school, but this was different. This depression was dark and unrelenting. I wasn’t trained to deal with this. I wasn’t a therapist or a psychiatrist. I was just a mother—her mother. I was her caretaker. And I was absolutely terrified of losing her.
      During the most difficult months, I missed quite a few important work meetings, making excuses that had nothing to do with the reality of what was really happening at home. Some of my colleagues knew about my situation, but most didn’t. How was I supposed to explain to a colleague that I couldn’t make our 1 p.m. meeting because my daughter was feeling suicidal?
      She will get through this. Just continue to be there for her, they said.
      In the winter of 2020, BTS slowly and deliberately came back into Ellie’s life. Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V, and Jungkook went from being old high school acquaintances to being loyal, reliable friends. They were there for her during the endless days and nights that were soaked in depression and intrusive thoughts. And like clockwork, each week BTS brought her new songs, music videos, variety show specials, and live streams to keep her company. They even made her laugh—a seemingly impossible feat during a time when her world seemed to lack color and purpose.
      Perhaps most importantly, several members of BTS used their platforms to sing—and speak openly—about their own personal struggles with mental health. They also sang about the importance of self-love, acceptance, and perseverance. And Ellie was listening.Epiphany by BTS (translated from Korean)I'm shaking and afraid, but I keep going forwardI'm meeting the real you, hidden in the stormWhy did I want to hide my precious self like this?What was I so afraid of?Why did I hide my true self?I'm the one I should love in this worldShining me, precious soul of mineI finally realized so I love meNot so perfect but so beautifulI'm the one I should love
      Ellie also had access to the most active online supportive community in existence—40 million BTS ARMY fans. She had a place to engage in discourse with others about BTS’ message of self-love and positivity. Ellie wasn’t alone.
      Over the past year, BTS has become an important part of my life, too. Desperate to connect with Ellie and to be present with her during her journey, I listened to BTS’ music and watched hundreds of hours of content with her. We cooked Korean food. We had thoughtful conversations about South Korean music, film, and culture. We also had important, timely conversations about xenophobia, masculinity, racism, and gender norms. We talked about mental health.
      BTS kept me alive, Mom.
      Ellie has said this to me many times over this past year. While I was desperately seeking support and help for her from the outside, she had been actively engaged in her own recovery from inside our home. BTS was her distraction and ARMY was her support network.
      In the spring of 2021, Ellie wrote, sang, and produced her first music album on her iPhone, late at night in her bedroom. Her song lyrics are both beautiful and heartbreaking—a pandemic time capsule that encompasses a year of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and self-discovery. Music was, and continues to be, Ellie’s lifeline.
      The Surgeon General, along with pediatric and psychiatric professional organizations, recently declared a national emergency on children’s mental health, emphasizing the toll the pandemic has had on our youth. Our children need help, and parents, like me, need help, too. Recovery from mental illness is a long—often isolating—process for everyone involved.
      Unfortunately, the peer-reviewed research articles and evidence-based strategies didn’t translate well for us during the pandemic. For Ellie, seven members of a Korean boy band helped her through the darkest year of her life. Perhaps her therapists and I helped her, too. But I like to think we all did it together, with Ellie taking the lead.
      This piece was published with permission of Ellie.