It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is a K-drama that tells the story of two brothers, Moon Gang-tae and his older brother, Moon Sang-tae. Due to the loss of their mother at a young age, Moon Gang-tae becomes the sole caretaker of Sang-tae, who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. As Sang-tae was the only one who witnessed their mother’s murder, he has traumatic nightmares inexplicably having to do with butterflies attacking him—and the two have to be ready to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice in order for Sang-tae to feel safe again and for their life to be livable. Before their next move, the brothers meet Ko Mun-yeong, Sang-tae’s favorite children’s book author, and she and Gang-tae develop a romantic relationship. She too, is not without her own personal mental health issues and trauma. Without a doubt, It’s Okay Not to be Okay is at its best when portraying mental illnesses, healing, and the bonds between brothers. Unfortunately, when the show dives more into the mystery surrounding the murder of Gang-tae and Sang-tae’s mother, it borders on mediocre.

What I liked the most about It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is the character of Sang-tae. Sang-tae is not relegated to the role of a side character or any kind of plot device, as so many characters with Autism Spectrum Disorder are. Instead, he is an integral part of the show, and his thoughts, feelings, and needs are shown as extremely important to everyone. In fact, Ko Mun-yeong essentially has to gain Sang-tae’s approval before officially dating Gang-tae. This is a main sticking point of the show, as Sang-tae is used to his younger brother basing his entire life around him and his needs. It’s really beautiful how these three characters form a “found” family over time—one that not only accepts each other’s mental health issues, but loves each other for them. I feel like Ko Mun-yeoung and Gang-tae’s relationship is more powerful because of having to go slowly to gain Sang-tae’s acceptance and because of overcoming their own personal issues.

Gang-tae for example, has never been able to date, let alone put down roots anywhere. Every year, he packs up, quits his job, and moves to avoid Sang-tae’s butterflies. I cannot imagine the emotional toll this alone takes on a person, especially since he’s been caring for his brother all alone from a very young age. What’s more, is that he also works in psychiatric hospitals as an orderly/caregiver, as he never was able to continue his education after his mother died. Most of his trauma also stems from the fact that his mother treated him like he was only born to take care of and to protect Sang-tae. All this emotional turmoil turns him into someone who thinks his wants and needs are selfish and unimportant. As such, Gang-tae is completely unable to express how he really feels and masks his emotions as not to upset his older brother.

Ko Mun-yeong is Gang-tae’s love interest, and Sang-tae’s eventual best friend. It’s Okay to Not Be Okay remarks off-handedly that she has antisocial personality disorder, a pretty serious mental health diagnosis which is defined as a complete disregard for others, though I don’t know if that’s her actual diagnosis. Regardless, Ko Mun-yeong doesn’t seem to have many worries for the thoughts and feelings of others, doing whatever she wants on whim, with no thought of the consequences. This means that when she decides she likes something or someone, in the case of Gang-tae, she goes after it with every fiber of her being and boy, do antics ensue. She’s absolutely wild and I immediately loved her. Not only is she beautiful, but so are the children’s books she writes—her only way of communicating her true feelings to the world. In fact, all of the episodes share a title with one of her books or another famous fairytale and it is her books that allow her to bond with Sang-tae. (Sidenote: I would 100% read any of her Tim Burton-esque books, and apparently they are actually on sale somewhere in South Korea. If only I could read Hangul.)

It’s really beautiful how Sang-tae, Gang-tae, and Ko Mun-yeong manage to work past all of their traumas together. The show does a great job sensitively reflecting each of their emotional traumas from childhood and how they shaped them into the adults they are. And as it turns out, these three have more shared trauma than they initially thought, and that’s where It’s Okay to Not Be Okay loses its way. It turns out Ko Mun-yeong’s mother, who traumatized her so much that she sees her as a ghost during her sleep paralysis, is View Spoiler » It’s a huge stretch, and completely unbelievable. This all comes to light in the final episodes of the show to try and tear a happy Ko Mun-yeong and Gang-tae apart, and it all just feels really contrived and unnecessary. I think the show should’ve simply spent more time developing its side characters in the psychiatric ward, or the second leads (who I honestly didn’t care much at all about), instead of going down this weird path. This bizarre twist, if you can call something so poorly written and explained a twist, really ruined the whole show for me.

My only other problem with It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, was that in the beginning of the show Ko Mun-yeong was walking around almost stabbing people in the eye with pens, pushing them down the stairs, and slicing someone with a knife. She was clearly off the rails, and the show really dials down her behavioral issues when she falls in love with Gang-tae, almost as if love “cures” her and makes her magically care about the well-being of others. This could be a dangerous message to send people about mental health. I wish It’s Okay Not to be Okay would’ve shown her getting therapy or something of the sort, though Sang-tae’s therapy didn’t really seem legitimate either. He literally sits down with the director of Ok Psychiatric Hospital one time for roughly five minutes in a single episode, and somehow the doctor magically convinces him to confront his years-long fear of butterflies.

Regardless, it concerned me that not only did It’s Okay to Not Be Okay choose not show her working on her issues under the guidance of a mental health professional, but also that a psychiatric hospital hired her with no concern for how her own personality disorder/conditions would effect their patients. And it does, she makes one patient faint, and another cry from her harsh words. It’s mind-boggling that they even hired her, as she tried to stab another, violent patient on her very first visit, but ends up slicing Gang-tae when he prevents her from doing so. At they very least, hiring her seems like a bad idea, at worst, it seems like medical malpractice and a lawsuit.

I also had trouble believing parts of the portrayal’s of Sang-tae’s mental health. I was surprised that Sang-tae had as little of a set routine as he did, occasionally working as a part-timer in a pizza shop, others going to school, and sometimes lived on his own for the night and was able to cook for himself with no issue, despite being prone to episodes of panic.  I was a Psychology major in college for a semester and took a course on “The Exceptional Child,” which spent a lot of time on Autism Spectrum Disorder, so I think I might know a tiny bit more than the average person, but I am by no means an expert. However, with what little I do know, I just didn’t think Sang-tae seemed to be high functioning enough to be able to do all these things without supervision or without accident or harm, especially with his sporadic episodes that leave him unable to cope at all and require him to self-isolate.

But I guess the romance and plot had to move forward sometimes, and for the latter especially, show had to get Gang-tae and Mun-yeong alone, so they made this happen whether it was realistic or not for Sang-tae’s overall well-being. Likewise, the psychiatric patients are seen walking around with little to no supervision, having all sorts of personal stuff in their rooms, and it just didn’t seem like a very accurate portrayal of a psychiatric hospital to me. I wish the show had committed a bit more to realism. While it’s okay to not be okay, it’s not so okay to show unrealistic treatments for mental health.

Despite these issues, I do think the show does an overall solid job of its portrayal of Sang-tae, as I said before. Other shows have a tendency to sideline characters with similar conditions, to not spend as much time developing them, and to sadly, use them as plot devices. I love that It’s Okay to Not Be Okay made Sang-tae a main character as important as Gang-tae and Ko Mun Yeong. And the actor who portrays Sang-tae, Oh Jung-se, does an absolutely phenomenal job! He takes care to portray his character’s struggles of making eye contact and having tics. Likewise, the actress playing Ko Mun-yeong, Seo Ye-ji, blew me away. Viewers can literally see her thoughts playing across her face, and she does a great job balancing portraying a confident, strong woman who is also incredibly vulnerable. For me, the weakest link out of these main three actors on the show, was surprisingly Kim Soo-Hyun, who plays Gang-tae. I don’t know if it was simply because he was playing a character who hides his true feelings, but a lot of the times, I had no idea what was going on through his head. Unfortunately, this was really noticeable in contrast to the other main actor and actress. The character’s emotional outbursts, when they did happen, seemed very random as result of his inability to portray the minute details of emotions. I simply didn’t care for this portrayal as much as the portrayals of the other characters.

Overall, I did enjoy It’s Okay to Not be Okay. It was very entertaining for the most part, making me laugh out loud at times, and sharing a lot if its theme through the interesting medium of children’s books. Obviously, the show did try to handle the delicate mental health of its characters with sensitivity, even though it wasn’t always a very realistic portrayal of the healing process, etc.. I really enjoyed the unique relationship between the three main characters, and loved the acting of two of these leads. However, I definitely lost interest in the show when it dealt with the mystery surrounding the murder of Gang-tae and Sang-tae’s mother and I found myself on my phone a lot browsing the internet instead of paying full attention to the show during these parts. If viewers want to watch a K-drama dealing with mental health and that has a well-done twist, I recommend they watch It’s Okay, That’s Love instead.


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