December 21, 2017 / 6:02 AM / a year ago

Wailing fans bid farewell to South Korean singer, officials flag suicide concerns

SEOUL (Reuters) - Grief-stricken fans braved Seoul’s winter cold on Thursday to bid farewell to Kim Jong-hyun, the lead singer of top South Korean boy band SHINee, but his apparent suicide fueled health officials’ concern about copycat bids.

A portrait and the coffin of Kim Jong-hyun, the lead singer of top South Korean boy band SHINee, is carried during his funeral at a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

South Korea has one of the world’s highest rates of suicide, which is the chief cause of death of those younger than 30, and officials urged distraught young people to seek help.

“Copycat deaths after high-profile celebrities’ suicides are very common,” said Shin Eun-jung, an official of the Korea Suicide Prevention Centre.

“The late K-pop singer was very popular among teenagers, who tend to be particularly vulnerable to emotions and traumas.”

Weeping, wailing and embracing one another, young men and women dressed in grey and black lined the road as a hearse carrying Kim’s coffin left the hospital in the South Korean capital.

“I am so sad that I cannot even cry,” an 18-year-old Chinese fan, Chen Jialin, said at the funeral. “My heart aches so much.”

Kim, 27, was found unconscious next to burning briquettes on a frying pan in a serviced residence in Seoul on Monday, police told Reuters.

He died later at a hospital, with officials calling his death an apparent suicide.

HIGH SUICIDE RATES

South Korea’s suicide rate of 24.1 per 100,000 residents in 2015, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization, was more than double the global average of 10.7.

In 2016, the nation of 51 million reported an average of 36 suicides a day, the government has said.

“We closely monitor news outlets as well as the number of suicides after celebrities’ deaths to prevent a suicide contagion among the broader public,” said a health ministry official.

Studies have shown that high-profile suicides can not only provoke more deaths, but also spur people to adopt similar methods, Shin added.

The concerns spread to Thailand, where officials on Wednesday urged vigilance for fans of Korean pop music who might be at risk of committing suicide.

“Fans who are emotionally weak and depressed are at high risk when it comes to imitating what their idols do,” Samai Sirithongthaworn, a Thai mental health official, told Reuters.

DEMANDING LIFESTYLE

Kim spent nearly a decade as one of five members of SHINee, as well as being a solo artist. His death was a massive blow to the fans drawn to Korea’s K-pop music worldwide.

A song by the group BTS had held a spot on the Billboard 200 list for seven weeks as of the end of November.

But there were signs that Kim’s glittering public life hid a darker personal side.

Yonhap news agency said Kim sent a final message to his sister asking her to “let me go”.

A day after his death, a fellow musician published a note received from Kim two weeks before.

In it, the singer said he was “broken from inside” and his doctor had failed to tackle his depression, blaming Kim’s unhappiness on his personality instead.

“The depression that had been slowly eating me up finally devoured me and I couldn’t defeat it,” he wrote.

K-pop singers can face demanding lifestyles as they are often groomed by music companies from an early age.

“As top stars gain popularity, they are very much deprived of private life,” said Seok Jeong-ho, a psychiatry professor at Gangnam Severance Hospital.

“As mental problems cannot be seen, the importance of immediate treatment is often neglected.”

Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Dahee Kim in SEOUL, and Amy Lefevre in BANGKOK.; Writing by Karishma Singh and Josh Smith; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez

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