Mental health expert’s unique approach to changing and saving lives
Therapeutic. More than a decade before the recent K-drama craze in the country was intensified by the pandemic, that was how I have always described my Korean drama viewing experience. My personal insight was recently validated by no less than Korean-American licensed marriage and family therapist, mental health advocate, public speaker, and author Jeanie Y. Chang, LMFT, CMHIMP, CCTP.
K-dramas form a large part of Jeanie’s current therapy practice. She creatively and scientifically incorporates K-drama scenes as viewing homework for her clients.
Growing up as a Korean in the United States, Jeanie did not have the appreciation for her cultural heritage until her exposure to K-drama in 1992.
“I was a high school senior when I saw my first modern K-drama. It’s called Jealousy in English. I remember that so well because that was my first time watching a K-drama and I loved it!,” Jeanie happily shared over a video call.
She went on to relate that getting into business school and her wife and mommy duties in the early 2000s got in the way of her K-drama immersion. Jeanie just got back into the habit when she discovered My Love From the Star starring Kim Soo-hyun and Jun ji-hyun in 2015.
“It’s not only the story that I like. Honestly, I like watching someone who looks like me,” she added.
Apparently, Jeanie’s clients, including non-Asians, also feel connected to K-dramas. The mental health and therapy expert successfully used this reality to merge her love for K-drama and passion for helping others.
“That is why K-dramas are powerful. They are relatable. I don’t care if you’re telling me, ‘Oh, but they drive Mercedes and have these beautiful purses.’ I need you to look at the guy who’s miserable, who has no parents, or went through a childhood trauma. He’s rich but he’s unhappy. Those things are real,” she said. “To see that somebody who went through a very hard time got deserved happiness. That’s super important to our mental health. All of those stories are relatable and we find ourselves in it.”
“The story-telling is so well-done. Like I wish I can know these screenwriters,” Jeanie raved about K-drama and shared why she thinks it’s drawing a lot of attention worldwide.
“When I watch one scene, I could start out laughing, and then I’m crying by the end of the scene.”
She also agreed that the growing love for K-Pop artists like EXO and BTS and the availability of titles on digital streaming platforms have also contributed to K-drama’s popularity. At one point, she smilingly said, “Squid Game helped bring it massive attention, you know?”
Asked how she injects K-drama into therapy, Jeanie made a clarification that she only includes it when necessary.
“I will bring it in when it makes sense. A couple of times I’ve had to say it to couples, ‘You know what, it’s going to help you become close. Watch a K-drama.’ And they will stare at me,” she said. “I’ll be like, ‘Okay listen, you watch movies together, same thing,’ But this is K-drama, it’s 16 episodes. Imagine 16 hours of really bonding and seeing a story that’s romantic.”
In a lot of cases, the strategy works, even in her K-drama workshops.
“Everybody always cries,” Jeanie observed and described how effective showing K-drama clips to her participants is to draw out certain concepts like grief, childhood trauma, and family conflict. These are eventually discussed and processed. Scenes from her go-to titles like Reply 1988, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, Boys Over Flowers, Itaewon Class, and the Red Sleeve have been tried and tested.
Jeanie takes no offense when some of her clients do not fully grasp their emotions until they have seen a certain K-drama scene.
“Some people did not know that they were grieving or sad until they saw something,” she said. “I think those are the most powerful stories. Hearing people say, ‘A K-drama changed my life. I was able to get through this hard traumatic time because I saw this K-drama.’ I love that. I hear that a lot.”
These days, Jeanie does not have to see people in face-to-face sessions in order to help. She has embraced the digital space as Noona’s Noonchi (Noona stands for older sister while noonchi means “sharp eye measure” in Korean) and gets in touch with strangers from all around the world through Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube. Jeanie uses her noonchi skills to zoom into K-drama scenes and gets into a deep dive into the latest titles. She presents these in easily digestible short-form videos.
As a mental health expert, Jeanie still believes in being mindful of one’s viewing consumption. She reminds her clients to be as careful as she is in picking and choosing what they watch. “I use it [K-drama] as a tool. It should not be a replacement if you need therapy,” Jeanie said. “Yes, binge-watching, it happens to the best of us. And it’s fun! But, if you find yourself binge-watching and you’re not doing anything else, like your work or you’re not sleeping and you’re becoming grouchy, then I would worry. I would want you to keep the balance.”
Watch out for the full video interview on Random Republika Youtube channel. Follow Jeanie Y. Chang a.k.a. Noona’s Noonchi on Instagram, TikTok, and Youtube. You may also check out her book “A is for Authentic: Not for Anxieties Or for Straight A’s” which tackles the issue of mental health stigma in the Asian community.
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