“There’s a place where we don’t have to feel unknown, and every time that you call out, you’re a little less alone. If you only say the word, from across the silence, your voice is heard.”
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults between the ages of 12–24. Given its prevalence in modern youth culture, the media has begun to capitalize on suicide awareness, taking what used to be considered too sensitive a topic and reframing it into a normalized concept that now borders on “trend.”
While there is generally a positive intent behind this depiction of suicide in the mainstream, its fatal implications are too often portrayed as more romantic than tragic—all for the sake of entertainment. From online communities such as Tumblr that endorse self-harm through artistic expression to Netflix dramas that perpetuate the idea of suicide as a release from torment and depression (does 13 Reasons Why sound familiar?), the media is projecting a distorted message, and susceptible teens are listening.
But despite the frequency of those triggering themes and images, one Broadway musical has struck the right chord on this controversial issue where many other platforms have misfired. That show is Dear Evan Hansen which claimed six Tony Awards back in June—including the coveted “Best Musical” distinction. Upon its debut at The Music Box Theatre in December 2016, this production rapidly found a niche among millennial audiences who have resonated with the title character’s sense of displacement, isolation, ostracism and social anxiety.
The plot centers around high school senior Evan Hansen who writes letters of affirmation to himself as a coping mechanism advised by his therapist. After one such letter falls into the possession of another unbalanced student named Connor Murphy, who later commits suicide, Evan fabricates a scenario in which he and Connor where close friends. As he becomes more entrenched in this false reality, Evan begins to perceive an attachment with Connor’s spirit, influencing him to launch an organization that advocates for teenage mental health.
Although this counterfeit friendship between Evan and Connor is ultimately exposed, the protagonist’s mission to forge an environment of inclusion and acceptance gives those he comes in contact with permission to just be human, united in their primal desire to feel heard and seen—and found. During a climactic moment in the narrative, Evan confesses that he also has attempted suicide, the catalyst behind his determination to sustain Connor’s memory in the first place.
In view of this admission, the plot could have been simplified to a melodramatic trope of adolescent angst or an overwrought account of “dark horse” survival. But Dear Evan Hansen does not pander to these stereotypes. It neither glamorizes nor stigmatizes the topic of mental illness, instead facilitating a candid dialogue about real suffering experienced by real people who yearn for real camaraderie and connection.
In fact, rather than shaming Evan for his psychological state, the other characters follow his example of vulnerability and embrace the freedom to unmask their own complicated emotions in the process. Although he must grapple with the aftershocks of his deception, Evan comes to recognize that he is not alone, disregarded or forgotten in the shuffle. His urgency to belong is a universal theme—one that binds people together if they are willing to be raw, honest and authentic toward their fellow human beings.
This realization arouses in Evan the self-awareness he presumably lacked and the affirmation he continually sought, both of which existed deep within all along. And that message is the redeeming quality behind Dear Evan Hansen’s treatment of these once “taboo,” now over-aggrandized, issues of self-harm and suicide—through the meaningful conversations it has initiated and the empowering solidarity it has created. These shared experiences make life worth sticking around for.
So perhaps if we spent more time acknowledging and discussing the true nature of mental illness—not just on a Broadway stage but in the fabric of our culture—death might no longer seem like the viable option it’s become.
...Just a hunch.
September is recognized as Suicide Prevention Month. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts or tendencies, please contact the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 which offers a network of confidential support and resources for both sufferers and their friends or family members.