In 2018 I saw Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. As a therapist, I’m so excited to see a Broadway musical explore the world of social anxiety and mental illness with such care. In 2019, the show is scheduled to tour through over 30 cities in the USA and Canada. I admire Dear Evan Hansen for presenting mental health issues and the stigma around them, with humanity and compassion.
Anyone who has ever felt alone and misunderstood will likely appreciate this story. Though it deals with depression, anxiety, addiction, grief and attachment trauma, it inspires compassion and hope for post-traumatic growth in a thought-provoking way.
Reducing the Stigma Around Mental Illness — Clearing the Path to Recovery!
I wish that as a society, we gave more attention and compassion to mental health concerns—whether depression, anxiety, PTSD, mental illness, attachment trauma, suicide or addiction. When artists and performers bring personal challenges like these into the mainstream, they do more than entertain. They engage us in issues where our attention is long overdue. Putting a journey of anguish and healing in the spotlight is a great way to help more people connect and talk about mental health more!
I’m especially grateful to see hopeful depictions of post-traumatic growth, like this musical and the Mr. Rogers documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—because they show that healing and post-traumatic growth are possible. These offer reasons for hope and inspiration, unlike darker dramas such as 13 Reasons Why. Like me, others have criticized 13 Reasons for glamourizing suicide simply for entertainment value, without bringing to light the importance of seeking help and healing and that healing is possible.
I know that by reducing the stigma around mental health issues, more people will allow themselves to consider and seek out help. Progress includes thinking about the mental health value of what we choose to watch — and how to make the connections necessary to heal — which simply couldn’t be more important.
About the Show (Spoiler alert: plot summary follows)
Evan Hansen is a highschool senior who suffers with severe social anxiety, making it hard for him to connect with others and make friends. His therapist has given him an assignment that leads him to write letters to himself. Evan then has to deal with the aftermath of a classmate’s struggles with mental illness, addiction, and suicide. He fabricates a story that brings him closer to the classmate’s family. This new relationship gives him the courage to make friends, learn to connect and gain a sense of security on his own.
Because he feels his classmate’s family sees him, welcomes him and accepts him as-is, Evan Hansen is able to heal. He becomes more emotionally resilient and healthy enough to speak his truth in the end.
Dear Evan Hansen as a story inspires compassion for someone with attachment trauma, who felt invisible and unimportant, as well as hyperaroused and anxious. Through connection, we see how such a person finds some healing and growth — a realistic path to recovery.
The show demonstrates how healthy relationships and emotional connections can heal.
The Reality: So Many People Struggle With Mental Health Concerns
In the real world, a staggering number of young people are struggling with mental health issues. Their loved-ones are also struggling to understand, and find the best ways to provide support.
The show’s opening number, “Anybody Have a Map?” reflects this struggle well.
So, does anybody have a map?
Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?
I don’t know if you can tell
But this is me just pretending to know.
So where’s the map?
I need a clue
‘Cause the scary truth is
I’m flying blind
I’m making this up as I go
We Are Wired for Connection—Not Isolation!
As humans, we are wired for connection. Yet for young adults, heavy use of social media may leave them feeling more socially isolated than others who spend less time on social platforms. Social media and technology are definitely impacting our abilities to connect. There’s a big difference between connecting face-to-face, seeing someone’s expressions and hearing their intonation and texting or communicating on social media. Neither texting or online messaging allow people to fully experience and benefit from in-person cues.
The Broadway production did a great job of showing how social media can increase our levels of loneliness and make a bad situation feel worse. A stream of updates can give the impression everyone else’s life looks “perfect,” which can make onlookers feel badly because their life doesn’t live up to the slice of life that friends and connections show the world.
Unfortunately what many people don’t share on social media is the larger truth. Authenticity empowers meaningful connections!
Reach Out So “You Will be Found!”
The beautiful song, You Will Be Found, encourages connection, especially the lyrics: “Every time that you call out…you’re a little less alone.”
Have you ever felt like nobody was there?
Have you ever felt forgotten in the middle of nowhere?
Have you ever felt like you could disappear?
Like you could fall, and no one would hear?
Well, let that lonely feeling wash away
Maybe there’s a reason to believe you’ll be okay
‘Cause when you don’t feel strong enough to stand
You can reach, reach out your hand
If You Struggle, There is Hope!
If you are struggling, seek connection…
If you see someone who’s struggling, try to connect…
When we reach out, and share our real feelings, we are no longer alone. That’s where healing begins.
Whether someone is dealing with attachment trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction or grief, healing and growth are possible. Shows like Mr. Rogers’ story in Won’t You Be My Neighbor, musicals like Dear Evan Hansen, and efforts of celebrities who go public with their mental health struggles, give us more reason to hope. These stories help reduce the stigma against those with mental health issues. They raise awareness that healing is possible, and show the paths to healing are more accessible.
I am so hopeful that speaking up and getting help will become the norm. I’m hopeful that as a society, we will see others through the lens of compassion. I hope in the near future, every person feels safe and comfortable saying: “I’m struggling with _________. I’m willing to go to therapy. I want to get help.”
- Video: The Cast Of Broadway’s ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ On Mental Health | TIME
- Video: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Shines Broadway’s Lights on Mental Health Awareness
- Book: Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, by Matthew D. Lieberman