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Your Guide To Understanding The Psychological Conditions Highlighted In K-Drama "It's Okay To Not Be Okay"

Because facts on mental health go beyond how they're presented in pop culture!

Fact: the terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" aren't actually real mental conditions. They were terms coined for use in every day conversation and aren't official psychological diagnoses at all. 


And as for all those times you joked about yourself or someone you knew being "anti-social," you likely meant that you were withdrawn, or that your friend was a classic example of an introverted individual. What about talking about "manic episodes" and associating the term with the image of an out of control, generically "crazy" person without knowing what "mania" truly meant? 


We could go on and on about the misconceptions and misunderstandings of mental health terms! There are one too many of them that have proliferated over the years, no thanks to the unfiltered free-for-all landscape of the Internet and pop culture that are both peppered with Psychological misinformation.



Films and TV shows in particular have attempted to present Psychological conditions in a variety of ways, some of which have been successful, others, not as much. 


Focusing on the shows that have done a good job at presenting mental conditions sensitively and as true-to-science as they possibly could, ongoing K-Drama It's Okay To Not Be Okay deserves a special mention. Though developed to be exactly that—a K-Drama whose main purpose is to entertain—the series has been applauded for its informed approach to a variety of psychological issues. 






And given the show's wide reach among Filipino viewers, it becomes triply important to inform them of the truth behind the conditions and terms tackled in their current K-drama binge session. In a conversation with licensed and practicing psychologist and Ateneo de Manila University lecturer Jonathan Ilagan, he elucidates the mental conditions presented in the show to give you a firmer grasp of what they truly mean.



First things first: Understanding the mental health conditions presented in the show through a psychological lens 


Mania, or manic episodes

No, its Filipino translation is not "baliw.


"When we talk about being manic or being in a manic episode, it's not necessarily the 'crazy' that we know, but it's being in heightened state," explains Jonathan. 


And by being in a heightened state, that usually means feeling extraordinarily energetic and motivated, excessively confident in one's self and abilities, and mentally and physically charged. A person experiencing the heightened state associated with mania potentially doesn't feel the need to eat or sleep while engaged in a task, are hyper-focused, can produce work quickly with little to no rest, and can even feel euphoric (that is, intensely happy or enthusiastic). Life to this person has no room for dull and still moments.


Often, but not always, a manic episode goes hand in hand with the far end of the spectrum: low-energy, depressive state. After all, a person in a heightened state can't stay that way forever; the body has its physical limits and will eventually crash! Post-crash, a person who was once enjoyed the thrills of a heightened state will feel down in dumps, experiencing things like sadness, tiredness, and a deep dip in motivation. 


When taken together, manic episode and depressive episodes form another commonly heard, but often misconstrued illness: Bipolar Disorder. That's even where the disorder's name comes from: the "swinging" to and from manic and depressive states, two dichotomous emotional poles.


Learn more about manic and depressive states as well as Bipolar Disorder here



Autism, or more accurately, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Before getting into the nitty gritty of things, it's important to understand why autism is considered a "spectrum" disorder. It's simple, really; a person doesn't have or not have, autism, but rather, autism can manifest itself in different ways, and manifestations can also vary in their severity. 


And unlike many other mental health conditions, ASD is more accurately categorized as a developmental, rather than a purely psychological disorder. It's a developmental disorder because it can disrupt the normal course of a person's social, communication, and behavioral milestones. 


Now your next question might be, how do I know if someone in my life has ASD? There are many ways that ASD can manifest, but as Jonathan explains, there are a handful of symptoms that are most commonly observed and they include: 


  • Delayed speech, or a total inability to communicate verbally especially in children 


  • Inappropriate play behaviors (This is frequently seen in children who don't use a toy or engage with an object as it was intended. For example, a child may take a toy truck and constantly use it as a pacifier rather than roll it around the floor as it was made to). 


  • Discomfort in social situations (Individuals with ASD will find it extremely difficult to strike up a conversation or maintain one. They might be perceived as awkward and uncoordinated, as they may fail to successfully interpret social cues and understand non-verbal communication). 


  • Over-stimulation (People with ASD may sometimes feel that any or some of their senses are over-stimulated by the environment. Things that a regular person can tolerate may be torturous for those diagnosed with autism! A club with flashing lights, a fireworks display, a concert, a tight hug, or a crowded playground might be places or situations that those with autism won't be able to handle). 


  • Rigid behavioral rituals (A person with ASD might believe there are some things that they just have to do before feeling like everything around them is as it should be. They may, for example, insist on lining up or arranging objects on their desk before being able to get anything else done). 


  • Hyper-focus (You might see that those with autism choose one or two particular areas of interest and devote a disproportionate amount of their time to learning everything and anything there is about them). 



Learn more about Autism Spectrum Disorder here



Alzheimer's Disease

This might need little explanation for a Filipino audience, as it's a medical condition that's often discussed in households home to older family members.


According to Jonathan, it's right to think of "memory loss" as the hallmark of Alzheimer's. To further clarify the use of the term, however, he points out that Alzheimer's and Dementia, strictly speaking, can't be used interchangeably. Dementia is an umbrella term for conditions characterized by changes in the brain that cause memory loss and significantly disrupt decision-making, language, and problem-solving skills, among other thinking processes. Alzheimer's is but one condition categorized under Dementia. 


Jonathan explains, "Dementia can just be seen as an overall condition wherein people's memories start to go away... Normally, Dementia works backwards. The most recent memories, even recent events or recent knowledge acquired called episodic memories, are the first forgotten. And then there's something called procedural memory, which is memories of how to do things, and those stay longer."


Changes in personality and behavior (i.e.: what they were like before Dementia took hold) and an inability to go about one's day without assistance are also common occurrences in those with the disease. 


In an simplified illustration of the disease, you'll find that people with Alzheimer's won't only initially forget names, faces, dates, and places, but could eventually find themselves not knowing how to open the shower tap, use appliances, or even remember that rice needs to be steamed first before it can be eaten. 


Learn more about Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease here



Antisocial Personality Disorder 

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood personality disorders is this. But before we flesh out the details, what is a personality disorder in the first place?


To casually define it, it's a pervasive, long-term, and inflexible pattern of thinking and behaving that strain in interpersonal relationships. People with personality disorders often find it tough to form meaningful friendships and maintain romantic partners, as well as have trouble relating to people at work and at home. They might be described as "difficult to be around" by those they frequently interact with.


Now when it comes to Antisocial Personality Disorder specifically, it's important to understand that this does not automatically equate to a disdain of people. Not wanting to go out to a party or meet new people outside of one's social circle are not telltale signs of the disorder!


Instead, a person with this diagnosis is characterized as having a total and blatant disregard or rules and regulations, frequently violating social and moral norms. They don't feel responsible for the wrongs they've committed, and you'll find that attached to their constant "rule-breaking" behavior is having no empathy for those they've hurt, feeling no remorse, problems with impulse control, and manipulative behavior. 


The "antisocial" description in this disorder can be thought of as being "anti-society;" those with the diagnosis simply do not care how their callous actions can impact society!


Now that you have this in mind, we doubt you'll ever describe yourself as "anti-social" ever again!


Learn more about Antisocial Personality Disorder here



Post-traumatic Stress Disorder

You might usually associate this order, commonly abbreviated to PTSD, with soldiers who have come home from war, but living through the events of high-conflict areas aren't the only precursors to possibly developing PTSD.


The keyword here is trauma; there are several sources of extreme stress that can cause trauma, and if a person is unable to heal or recover from that trauma, a resulting PTSD diagnosis may be a possibility. Examples of sources of extreme stress are situations like getting into an extreme accident, experiencing severe injury, being the object of or being threatened with sexual violence, or witnessing death are just some of the conditions that could cause PTSD. 


But how exactly does PTSD manifest, if a person does happen to experience or witness an extremely stressful situation or event? 


"It normally involves re-experiencing the event in many ways (such as through flashbacks or dreams), a high level of anxiety attached to [them], uncontrollable thoughts related to the event, and avoiding experiences related to that event," says Jonathan. 


Many people who have gone through traumatizing events might not recognize that they have PTSD, which makes it important to schedule an appointment with a psychologist if they suspect that a traumatic experience from the past continues to significantly impact their day to day living.


Learn more about Post-traumatic Stress Disorder here.



And as a final note, how do you help out someone you know who might be in need of psychological services for these conditions, or even when it's you who needs help? 


Jonathan has three words: "See a psychologist," or more specifically, a licensed psychologist! Psychologists and only psychologists can provide you with the direction you need. (Jonathan works in a clinic called Gray Matters Psychological Center). Definitely stay away from self-proclaimed life coaches, therapists, or mental health practitioners who claim that they provide psychological support, because they may not be equipped with the technical and soft skills needed to help. 


And if they do give you a diagnosis, don't fear it.


"We were taught [in Master's] that diagnosing might not be the way to go. However, now that I'm practicing, for some people, a diagnosis might give them peace of mind and an understanding of why they've been behaving and feeling a certain way. It validates them and their experiences," he adds.



And speaking of validating, this is probably the best thing you can do as a family member, friend, colleague, or partner of someone with a psychological condition. Validate, and never, ever tell someone that they should ignore or suppress what they're feeling. 


"If someone in your family is experiencing a mental health condition and you've never had any experience with that, you probably don't know what it's like. Even though that's the case, it doesn't mean that you can't validate that person's situation," Jonathan says.


And by validating, a lot of the time,  listening is enough. A person who needs to talk things out doesn't necessarily want advice or isn't looking to be told what to do. (Giving unsolicited advice can even have detrimental effects!). Listening is the best thing you can do, and if it's advice they're looking for, they're likely to explictly ask for it.


"We have a tendency to suppress, or to tell people to suppress what they're feeling and anything that may be remotely negative. However, when you're told that you're not allowed to feel a certain way, it can have a lot of repercussions. Validating the experience, not by saying 'I know,' but by saying 'That sounds difficult. I'm sorry you had to go through that' is an understanding. By showing that kind of understanding, you also foster an environment of support. And when support is available, it makes it easier," he concludes.


As for the days when you feel less than okay? 


Jonathan agrees with the K-Drama a hundred percent. It's okay to not be okay once in a while, as all of it is part of being human, and experiencing life!


It's Okay To Not Be Okay is streaming on Netflix with new episodes every Saturday and Sunday, 10 PM. Images from @tvndrama.official / Additional images from Pexels and Unsplash