Earlier in July, a few of our senior staff had the privilege of attending the Tony Award-winning production of Dear Evan Hansen in Boston, thanks to the generous donation of an anonymous NAN Project supporter. Additionally, we were able to provide tickets to several teachers and guidance counselors from school districts we’ve worked closely with over the past year. We had a wonderful time socializing with our colleagues, soaking in the majesty of the beautiful Boston Opera House, and cultivating our mental health education and suicide prevention skills in a new setting.
The musical follows Evan Hansen, an awkward high school senior with an anxiety disorder, as he begins his school year and navigates his mental health in the aftermath of a peer’s suicide. Evan’s therapist has recommended that he practice positivity by writing letters to himself, detailing what will be good about each day. In the beginning, Evan’s single mother – a nurse by day and legal student by night – encourages him to make new friends, suggesting he break the ice by asking other students to sign the cast on his arm. Connor Murphy, presented as an angry outcasted punk that smokes marijuana before school, is the only person to do so, in big, bold print. Later the two have a confrontation in the computer lab where Evan is printing his letter to himself, in which he mentions how infatuated he is with Connor’s sister, Zoe. Upon finding this letter in the printer, Connor becomes furious and steals it. The next day Evan is called into the principal’s office to meet with Connor’s parents. We learn that Connor has died by suicide, and he was found with Evan’s letter in his pocket. Connor’s parents believe this to be a suicide note addressed to Evan and ask about his relationship with their son. Evan lets Connor’s parents believe that the two were good friends, as it seems to help them heal – but things quickly get out of hand, and Evan finds himself as the face of Connor’s memorial project.
Before the show, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (MSPCC) held a panel for educators and mental healthcare professionals to discuss the show’s impact on this generation of struggling youth, and different ways we can better our mental healthcare and suicide prevention efforts. Panelist and trauma clinician Marlene Kenney noted that young people today are approaching trusted adults with songs from the show’s soundtrack. Teachers, then, are looking to Dear Evan Hansen to better understand these students. Panelists agreed on the importance of holding space for conversations about mental health in the classroom – after all, most young people look to access mental health services within their schools, rather than beginning with daunting outside medical services. Research has shown that students who access mental health services in school, where they may already have supports in place, are also more likely to stick with treatment.
One thing Marlene would change, had she been working with students like Evan and company, is the way Connor’s death was memorialized. To hold space in memory of a suicide creates a “well of sorrow,” she says, where people will go to think about death. She suggests that the best way to honor someone who has died by suicide is to remember them as they were in life, not by the details of their death. The panel also took issue with disparaging comments in the script about LGBT youth. Evan is teased by a friend because the stories of his fictitious friendship with Connor make it seem like the two were secret lovers, and the romance is explored for comedic relief. Panelists argued that this is insensitive to the fact that suicide rates are five times higher among LGBT youth. Additionally, the panel criticized the cast’s lack of diversity, citing that students of color are less likely to access mental healthcare.
Regardless of its faults, the show has certainly impacted youth struggling with their mental health, and it spoke to our senior staff, too. There were tears, especially when Evan opens up to his mother about his own suicidal thoughts. Senior Peer Mentor Greta said she would have latched onto the soundtrack in high school: touching on experiences such as loneliness, non-belonging, and depression, it would have made her feel seen. The MSPCC panel praises the story for its portrayal of some signs of suicide in high school students, like the social and physical aggression Connor displays prior to his death. The play also shows how peers of a student who has died by suicide can become involved with “competitive grieving” – for example, the way Connor’s peers tried to out-do one another with stories of how he impacted them, and how much they were suffering in his absence. In this way, Dear Evan Hansen allows us a realistic glimpse into the tragedy and healing surrounding a youth suicide, even when the behaviors we adopt to cope are inappropriate. Regarding conversations about mental health with young people, we think this trendy musical is a good place to start, and we urge the audience – young people, parents, and educators alike – to keep the conversation going.We are immensely grateful for the opportunity to see this amazing production and process its impact with our colleagues in education and mental healthcare. Thank you to our gracious anonymous supporter, to the MSPCC for an educational discussion, to the cast of Dear Evan Hansen for a beautiful show, and to The NAN Project team for continuing to make space for mental health education. There is help, and there is hope!