On South Korean TV, (lovingly) airing families’ dirty laundry

SEOUL (NYTIMES) – Appointment day was finally here. The parents had waited for a month to see the renowned psychiatrist in South Korea about their child’s issues. They entered the room, the doctor arrived, and the door closed.

Then the teleprompters turned on, the cameras started rolling, and the producer shouted, “Action!”

So began the taping of “My Golden Kids”, one of the most popular reality shows in South Korea. Reigning over the episode was Dr Oh Eun-young, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry who has been called the “god of parenting”. Her mantra: “There is no problem child, only problems in parenting.”

In a country where celebrity is often personified by young megastars churned out by an exacting entertainment industry, Dr Oh, 57, occupies a singular cultural place. She draws millions of viewers on television and the internet, dispensing advice on parenting and marriage.

Through a portfolio of shows – and books, videos and lectures – she has redefined therapy for Koreans, blown up the traditionally private relationship between doctor and patient and introduced the nation to accessible vocabulary on mental health issues.

“She is the mother that you wish that you would have had in your childhood,” said Dr Yesie Yoon, a Korean American psychiatrist in New York who grew up watching Dr Oh’s shows. “People really put their personal feelings toward popular figures in the media. And I feel like she’s serving a kind of good mother role to a lot of Korean people.”

Her success is all the more notable in a country where taboos about seeking mental health treatment have deep roots and getting therapy has traditionally been a furtive enterprise.

South Koreans attest to Dr Oh’s role in destigmatising psychiatric treatment, and the fact that some are willing to share their struggles on her shows is a watershed cultural moment. Practitioners in Dr Oh’s field say it is becoming easier to persuade South Koreans to get therapy or take medication.

In South Korea, about 1 in 4 adults has reported having a mental disorder in his or her lifetime, with only 1 in 55 receiving treatment in 2021, according to the National Mental Health Centre. By contrast, 1 in 5 American adults received mental health treatment in 2020, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Korea has among the world’s highest suicide rates; it was the fifth leading cause of death in 2020, the government says. Among people in their 20s, it accounted for 54 per cent of deaths.

When Dr Oh started her career as a medical doctor in 1996, many South Koreans associated mental illness with weakness, she said in an interview at a counselling centre in the wealthy Seoul district of Gangnam. Some even believed that people could become mentally ill from studying psychiatry. Over the years, those attitudes have transformed.

“Compared to when I took my first steps as a doctor,” she said, “more people have realised that talking to a psychiatrist is something helpful – not something embarrassing at all.”

Dr Oh, who runs one hospital and four counselling centres, has been using TV as a therapeutic platform since 2005, when she started her broadcast career giving lectures about childhood developmental disorders.