A Positive Change

There’s an exercise I do in my writing class. It’s actually designed to give students practice working with modals like “should,” and “must” and “might” and “can.” One of the places where we use these kinds of modals a lot is when we are giving advice, since of course using the imperative is less polite and bears a higher chance of offending the recipient of the advice. 

So I’ve devised this “Dear Abby” type exercise. Students choose one of five letters requesting advice. The situations are all different:

  • Someone is feeling depressed in general and burnt out from work
  • After months of flirting, someone confessed romantic attraction to someone and got rejected
  • Someone is stuck sharing a dormitory room with a roommate who never showers, brushes their teeth, or washes their clothes*
  • A parent is worried because their daughter has started biting other kids at daycare
  • Someone has moved to a new city is is feeling isolated and lonely

I’m not going to pretend all the advice students come up with is good. For example, there’s a fair bit of “eat something nice,” as if a favorite meal or tasty snack will fix everything. Likewise, in the situation with the stinky dorm roomate, there’s an alarming frequency with which—due to the university’s failure to implement a sensible system of dealing with such problems—people advise the student either to stop bathing themselves, as a form of revenge or reverse psychology, or to simply switch rooms, which solves their problem but forces someone else to deal with it instead. 

All that said, I’ve noticed a pretty positive change when it comes to that first letter.

When the issue of depression comes up, there’s a number of students who now suggest going to a doctor and/or a psychiatrist. They often say things like, “depression can be helped with medicine” or “depression sometimes needs treatment by a doctor.” They often will even say something like, “It’s best to ask a doctor whether treatment is necessary, and if it is, it’s better to get it.”

The frequency for this kind of statement is pretty high, too. I’d estimate the number of students suggesting medical intervention for depression at something like a third to a quarter of the total number of students. For this exercise, I actually split students up into groups of three or four and have little meetings with them. Each student chooses the letter to which they want to write a response, and everyone discusses each letter, and in every small-group meeting, someone chooses the depression letter and someone suggests professional help. 

It’s difficult to overstate what a sea change this is from before the pandemic, when almost nobody ever mentioned such an idea. How this change came about is probably a mix of factors: probably some students actually did end up seeking medical help for depression—or saw a loved one do so—and are speaking from experience. One student also credited a documentary he’d seen that explained a lot about the physiology of depression and how it is treated. Probably other factors nobody’s mentioned are in play, too. 

It’s always risky to take what undergrads say as a barometer of social change, but to be honest in this case the shift feels huge and I have to hope it is a good measurement of change out there in society. Obviously, the pandemic unleashed a lot of problems worldwide, but in Korea, I suspect it also forced the issue of mental health into public discourse in a more practical way, and changed some people’s attitudes when it comes to mental health care. Whether the change spreads and becomes mainstream attitude remains to be seen, but it’s a hopeful sign, and a far cry from the way people seemed to talk about it even just a few years ago—let alone how people talked about it when I first got here. 

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