Actor Lee Sun-Kyun and pop star IU in "My Mister."

How watching K-dramas can improve your mental health

Licensed marriage and family therapist Jeanie Y. Chang of the global wellness company Noona’s Noonchi explains

Starring the late Lee Sun-Kyun (left) and pop star IU, "My Mister" (2018) tops Jeanie Y. Chang's favorite K-Dramas of all time list. She recommends it to experience the healing power of intergenerational relationships.

Courtesy of Netflix

Words by Teena Apeles

If you’re among the legions of K-drama fans around the world, you already understand the power of the genre. You’ve embraced the experience of following different characters through their various tribulations over the course of 16 or so episodes (even pulled all-nighters doing so), and responded with laughter, shock, tears, anger. You immediately go online via your social network of choice to interact with the global K-drama community after each episode to see how others are responding, feeling. But why K-dramas? What is it about them that has such pull, and why now?

In the course of your social dive, it’s likely Jeanie Y. Chang’s Noona’s Noochi posts have appeared on your feed answering such questions and encouraging and validating your love for K-dramas. A quick look at her IG reels, and the Seoul-born Korean American shares how they can help you address a wide range of life’s challenges: understanding grief, providing ways to deal with a toxic person, recognizing what disordered eating can look like and, arguably K-dramas’ most valuable quality, they can transform your life.

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, Chang has witnessed firsthand how watching K-dramas can positively impact a person’s mental health after years of recommending them to not only her private practice clients, but her corporate clients as well. This month, you can read about Chang’s insights in her new book, How K-Dramas Can Transform Your Life: Powerful Lessons on Belongingness, Healing, and Mental Health (Wiley). Part self-help, part memoir, it includes anecdotes and case studies from her professional life—alongside numerous drama recs—about how K-dramas have helped her clients cope with their own struggles. At the heart of the book, as readers will learn early on, is how the genre also helped Chang, whose family immigrated to the States when she was months old, go from being a kid in Wilmington, Delaware, who distanced herself from (even rejected) her Korean heritage to becoming among its most fervent ambassadors via her clinical practice, leadership workshops, and nearly 100,000 social followers. How did the mother of four get here? It’s been a long journey, but one constant through her various occupations—journalist to marketing professional to licensed therapist and leadership coach to her most recently added enterprise, K-culture tour operator—is her love for K-dramas.

The book cover for "How K-Dramas Can Transform Your Life" by Jeanie Y. Chang.

The cover of Chang's book.

Courtesy of Jeanie Y. Chang

I recently spoke with Chang, while she was in Seoul on the fourth of six sold-out, week-long Noona’s Noochi’s Meet You in Korea Tours scheduled this year that invite fans from all over the world to indulge in their love for K-culture and dramas. Tour guests have represented many countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, Nepal, Nigeria, and Egypt, a testament to the genre’s international appeal and Noona’s Noochi’s popularity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A group of people stand holding a banner that reads "Welcome to Korea, Noona's Noonchi's 'Meet you in Korea 2024' Tour," against a city background.

Jeanie Y. Chang (center) in April with Noona's Noochi's "Meet You in Korea" tour group.

Courtesy of Noona's Noonchi

Teena Apeles: Take us back to when your love for K-dramas began. Do you remember seeing your first drama?
Jeanie Y. Chang: Yes, Jealousy, 1992. I was an 18-year-old about to head to NYU. My parents sent me to a Korean American summer program at Yonsei University [in Seoul]. Experiencing Korea that summer changed my life. I met thousands of other Korean Americans who were around my age having a lot of fun immersing ourselves in the culture. And K-drama was playing everywhere. Until that point, I was like, “I hate being Korean.” [I associated it] with my parents…old-school. I thought it was stressful [to be Korean]. Then I saw that actress, Choi Jin Shil, was super cute, with two guys loving her. The love triangle. And she’s Korean. I thought, "She's kind of cool, so maybe I'm cool." You know, that whole representation, that's where it hit me at age 18.

TA: You have a very interesting professional background, including working as a broadcast journalist after graduating from NYU. How did you go from journalism to therapy?
JYC: I loved journalism. Back then, in the ’90s, I covered President Clinton and was the only Asian covering politics in downtown D.C. It was very lonely. The Associated Press, that's where I worked, paid very well, but I had no life. And that's why I decided to go to business school [for an MBA] just out of sheer desperation to do something. In my 30s our family moved from D.C. to North Carolina because of my husband's job. I had just finished business school. I remember thinking—and I ask the very same questions of my clients when they're burned out—“What do I want to do? What makes me passionate?”

An Asian woman stands on a stage with a microphone, in front of an audience, with three presentation slides behind her.

Chang during one of her speaking engagements.

Courtesy of Noona's Noonchi

I was very good at asking questions and really digging deep with people to get the stories, like a journalist does. I just couldn't help them. I would just be, “Thank you for the story, bye.” But now, as a therapist, I'm like, “What's going on? Tell me about it.” I can actually respond and provide those follow-ups, and even provide coping mechanisms. And then the other part was, I've always been a good counselor. I was always the person that people went to for advice, and I thought, “Can I put that together?” And I woke up, I kid you not, at two in the morning, and went, “That's it. Marriage and family therapy.”

I went to graduate school, and we were in the cultural competency course, and I was so disappointed, thinking they talked a lot about white mental health and Black mental health even, but nothing with Asians. In 2017, I started my own private practice to serve Asian mental health, specializing in grief and trauma, and that was pre-pandemic, but my business skyrocketed in the pandemic.

Actor Kim Soo-hyun stands behind actor Seo Yea-ji with his hands on her arms, in "It's Okay Not to Be Okay."

Kim Soo-hyun (left) and Seo Yea-ji star in "It's Okay Not to Be Okay" (2020), which explores mental illness and childhood trauma and is among the dramas Chang uses in her workshops and sessions.

Courtesy of Netflix

My private practice base is 50 percent Asians, 50 percent everyone else, white, and I'm okay with that. But my corporate client base is probably 70 percent Asian and 30 percent white, meaning the Asian leaders of companies reach out to me.

TA: Your corporate client list is quite diverse: H&M, Google, the NFL, Jabil Corporation, Shipt Corporation, Microsoft, and Asian American Journalists Association, among others. What’s your process of preparing for a talk and weaving in K-dramas?
JYC: Eighty percent of my corporate talks include K-dramas. May (Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander History Month) is my busiest month. I work with the leaders, I will say, “What's going on in your organization that I can help with?” They'll be like, “Well, we're still facing some racial trauma, racial microaggressions.” That was during COVID-19, but it's shifted to burnout. Or another one is to talk about intergenerational mental health. And I'm like, “Got it, that's my specialty,” where it's like they're GenXers like me, struggling with their aging parents. And I’ll share clips of the K-drama Our Blues.

TA: How did you first use K-dramas in your work?
JYC: I brought them into a 2018 workshop at a local university. And I remember when I told a colleague, they poo-pooed it. And I went, “I think folks need something else, especially the youth. I don't want to sound so clinical. Students want to be inspired, right?”

Also, during a mother-daughter therapy session, when they kept raising their voices [at each other]. They were Asian [but not Korean]. As a therapist, I'm pretty direct. I went, “Do you watch Korean dramas? Because you guys kind of look like a Korean drama, and actually it might help you. What if I gave you a Korean drama to watch?” Then the mom was like, “I don't understand.” I said, “Watch the last two episodes of this drama Reply 1988 together. It's a father and daughter situation, but it's very similar [to your situation]. You don't have to talk about it together. Just wait to talk about it till you see me. Let's just try this out.”

The cast of the Korean drama, "Reply 1988" sit and stand together for a group portrait.

The intergenerational drama "Reply 1988" (2015) is number two on Chang's favorite K-dramas of all time.

Courtesy of Netflix

They came back to our next session, and I asked, “So how was it?” They're like, “We ended up watching the whole series.” And what I really liked was, when I said, “So let's talk about it.” They go, “Well, we already did.”

The very thing that K-dramas can do, or any media, is it helps you talk about [your own situation] because you're the same. The daughter could say, “Mom, remember that [scene]? That's you. You did that very thing.” And then the mom's like, “I'm not that mean.” The daughter's like, “Yes, you are, you ignore me. See that? The mom's talking over the son. Do you see what I'm talking about?” I thought that was amazing. And so it shifted our therapy completely…it just made the conversation much more productive, it brought in a different story.

TA: You mention that this can happen with any media, but the range of people you mention in your book who have reached out to you about K-dramas’ impact—including a group of men of different races who are incarcerated—also surprised you. Do you feel the pandemic and subsequent lockdown contributed to its popularity? Could you have predicted this when you first started recommending them in 2018?
JYC: No way would I have predicted that Korean culture would become this popular. No way would I have predicted that I would have a book on K-dramas. But I really believe this is part of mental health. This is how things worked out. During the pandemic, people, particularly in the U.S., were searching for something different. And that's what we do when you're stressed out. So if you correlate it to mental health—white, Black, Asian, Latinx, whatever it is—they're like, “This is awful. I feel so distressed. What's going to help me?” And it happened to come through [the rise in] streaming services, because we were all in lockdown. Research indicates that K-drama watching tripled then, when people [in the U.S.] were like, “I need something, anything to make me feel better.” And that's actually kind of how stress works.

Then the Netflix algorithm sees you watch one and they keep recommending more. And this is the story of everybody [who isn’t Asian] on my tours. They found comfort in something so different, in a K-drama, they didn't want to see a replication of themselves. And it's different for Asians. Asians [in the States] needed to see representation because we didn't have that. And BTS helped a lot. BTS was also just going global, pre-pandemic. So people knew BTS, and then they went, “BTS is Korean”…Korean dramas…So all of this, as you would say, aligned.

In her new book, Chang referred to 2019's "Crash Landing on You," starring Son Ye-jin (left) and Hyun Bin, as "the gateway K-drama" that won over international audiences.

Courtesy of Netflix

TA: How did your book develop? I appreciated the range: from self-care and healing our traumas to life stages and the workplace. Was it difficult for you, or did you already know what topics and K-dramas you were going to include in each chapter?
JYC: That was easy for me. I just thought, “What are the ones I use the most in my workshops? What are the ones that come to mind immediately when I think of intergenerational stress or trauma?” So the biggest stress of the book was just honestly making sure I brought my voice into it. Not the clinical part.

TA: Which K-dramas do you recommend the most to clients?
JYC: Dear My Friends, which shows the main characters in their 70s to 80s and lots of younger folks from Gen Xers and younger struggling with the aging population. I suggest that the most [for people] to see their grandparents or their parents as humans. I’d say, “You need to see their struggle because they're not telling you, because that's the Asian thing.” Even amongst white families, they'll say, “My grandmother's like that too.” Because that's just that thought process in your 80s: “We don't want to bother [our family]. We're older and wiser so we know everything.” They're not expressing their own emotions. Dear My Friends shows their struggles from Alzheimer's to wearing adult diapers to struggling with asking their adult kids for help.

When I talk to a lot of business leaders, I'll also recommend my favorite workplace dramas to show examples of healthy workplaces. I even talk about My Mister when it comes to workplaces. But my most recommended, has to be Dear My Friends, Hometown Cha Cha Cha, Reply 1988, and Mister Sunshine, a historical drama, for identity crisis.

TA: How have clients responded after following your recommendations?
JYC: They'll come back, first of all, feeling changed because they saw a different perspective. Mister Sunshine's set in the early 1900s, however, the character’s struggle (a Korean American returning to his homeland) is very relatable: he disliked his own cultural heritage. A lot of us struggle with that.

TA: What do you hope readers will take away from your book and all your enterprises?
JYC: This book is not giving solutions. I'm here to empower you: the person, the viewer, the client, to go, “I can change,” “This is making me feel better,” “I feel validated.” And so there are many times when they go, “Jeanie, I saw this and I started crying and I felt so much better.” And that is the most common response. And that's all I need to hear, that they finally found something cathartic that they were suppressing. And then we break it down, obviously: “Hey, why were you crying?” Or, “Why did you feel like you finally released something?” Those are my follow-up questions.

But the biggest change you tend to see in the person after watching K-dramas is being more self-aware, perhaps, of their own needs, being more understanding of their struggles and seeing it from another perspective through a story. And that's why I brought K-dramas in, because it can be very stressful just seeing yourself and your mom and your dad. But if you see it in a K-drama, it's easier. I do this also because it helps me. I watch K-dramas because they help me.

TA: Your current favorite K-drama?
JYC: Queen of Tears.

Actors Kim Soo-hyun and Kim Ji-won from "Queen of Tears" stand together in wedding clothing, against a wall of flowers.

The rom-com "Queen of Tears" stars Kim Soo-hyun (left) and Kim Ji-won, and was written by Park Ji-eun, who also scripted "Crash Landing on You."

Courtesy of Netflix

Published on April 29, 2024

Words by Teena Apeles

Teena Apeles writes about art, culture, design, activism, and history, and edits books on an even wider range of subjects. Her latest book, 52 Things to Do in Los Angeles, is now available from Moon Travel Guides. She is also the founder of the creative collective Narrated Objects, which produces books and experiences to showcase the diverse voices of Los Angeles.