Veteran comedian Lee Kyung-kyu (52), who regularly appears on several TV shows, recently confessed that he has been taking medication to treat panic attacks for four months. The revelation has instantly turned the spotlight on mental disorders or depressions many people in showbusiness are vulnerable to.
"I constantly felt like I was suffocating and felt scared of dying," Lee said. His fans were shocked by his confession, as Lee always exuded a happy-go-lucky persona on TV as an entertainer skilled at making viewers laugh.
Panic disorders involve extreme feelings of anxiety or even panic attacks for no reason and occur unexpectedly. Over the past several years, a growing number of entertainers have admitted to suffering from similar problems. Singer Kim Jang-hoon fainted last October as he was about to go on stage for a concert in Seoul and had to be hospitalized. He complained of lethargy, insomnia and a rapid heart rate.
Meanwhile, actor Cha Tae-hyun (36), famous for his comedic roles, told viewers last year that he too was wrestling with a panic disorder. "I began to suffer from the disease when a top actor was cast for a role in a rival TV drama after the show I was appearing in continued to do poorly in ratings," Cha confessed. He also recalled that he fainted during a flight and asked for an oxygen mask. And on one occasion he had to call an ambulance 30 minutes before a concert in the U.S.
Actress Kim Ha-neul admitted to a similar problem while playing a visually impaired person in the movie "Blind" last year. "My sense of panic also led to claustrophobia and I found it really difficult to film for more than two hours inside a small space," she said.
Jun Jin of the veteran boy band Shinhwa said he often fretted irrationally about the stage collapsing when he was performing, while actress Ha Yoo-mi said she literally got tongue-tied on stage as a panic attack led to the temporary paralysis of her tongue and face.
Singer Choi Jeong-won of the former boy duo UN recalled having to quit his singing career when his panic disorder worsened in 2006, causing his hands and feet to tremble and giving him difficulty breathing while recording albums.
Experts say that two to three out of every 100 people suffer from panic disorders in Korea, while the disease afflicts 11 percent of Americans. They say almost twice as many women are affected as men.
"People who are ambitious, who are perfectionists and who have stage fright often tend to suffer from panic disorders," said Park Jin-saeng, a psychiatrist who treated actress Choi Jin-sil for depression before she killed herself in 2008. "Entertainers or politicians have greater chances of suffering from those kinds of disorders than other people," he added.
Park said that celebrities get energized when their popularity soars, but when they are no longer in the limelight, they feel a sense of loss and become anxious, often resulting in insomnia, depression, and over-reliance on medication.