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‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ Do You Actually Care About Teen Mental Health?

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A Note to Readers: This article contains significant plot points and spoilers from “Dear Evan Hansen” as they relate to teen mental health.

With its Broadway debut, “Dear Evan Hansen” took the world by storm, going on to win the 2017 Tony Award for Best Musical. The first national tour of the show runs at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre through Sunday. While the show is exceptional with brilliant acting, music and direction, the musical’s controversial storytelling sends the wrong message to teens struggling with mental health.

The story unfolds with the parents of the suicidal teen Connor Murphy (played by the vibrant Marrick Smith), discovering the letter found with him, titled “Dear Evan Hansen.” But instead of a suicide note, it’s actually Connor’s classmate and the musical’s title character’s psychiatric assignment to help his anxiety (Evan Hansen played by the genius Ben Levi Ross). Instead of clearing up the confusion about the letter, Evan wants Connor’s grieving parents to feel better and plays along with the misunderstanding. For months, Evan then pretends to have known Connor (who, in reality, was his school bully), making up fake stories about his and Connor’s friendship and trips to the Murphy family’s favorite apple orchard, printing out fake emails with fake conversations, all under the guise of helping the Murphys, by giving them the dead son they wish they knew.

Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross) has a heart to heart with his mom (Jessica Phillips) in “Dear Evan Hansen” playing through Sunday at the Fox Theatre.

A speech Evan writes about Connor then goes viral. Riding the wave, Evan and his equally lonely friend Alana Beck (played by the ecstatic Phoebe Koyabe) begin the “Connor Project,” an initiative to raise $50,000 to restore the orchard that Evan lies about in all of his stories … in honor of Connor? The Connor Project ends up making Evan more popular and less lonely. He no longer takes his anxiety medication or writes the letter assignment his doctor tells him to do. Is this really a character teens should identify with?

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Then there’s the argument of the musical creating an unsettling story in order to spark powerful conversation. “Dear Evan Hansen” partially achieves this. Since seeing the musical, I have had conversations about the show, but not conversations about mental health, or teenage anxiety, or what we can do better in our communities about suicide. Instead, I’m only having conversations about the validity of the plot of the musical itself.

Muddled Messages For Teens

After Evan’s lies are exposed in Act 2, he’s not hated by the masses, his mother isn’t enraged at him, nor does the all-knowing internet find out his viral video is fake. In fact, Evan is better off now. The Murphys don’t expose him, or press charges as they likely would in real life. Evan goes to college, without the world knowing that he is a complete and utter liar. He’s still able to be the face of the Connor Project, the kid who planted an orchard for his dead best friend, a friend he didn’t know.

The muddled messages “DEH” end up teaching teens who struggle with their mental health are as follows:

1. If you have anxiety or trouble making friends, just lie to everyone you know because then you’ll be popular and people will like you.

2. If you kill yourself, it’s OK because you’ll still be able to come back to life on stage and dance around and sing three-part harmonies with your “friends.” Oh, wait. They’re not your friends because you don’t know them because they didn’t seem to care about you when you were actually alive.

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3. After your lie gets exposed, there won’t be any real consequences.

4. Your anxiety and all of your mental health problems will be fixed if you stop taking your medication, ignore your mother, and cease to listen to your doctor’s orders.

If “DEH” actually cared about teenage mental health, the musical’s creators would have focused on Connor’s real story (the reasons behind his anger and his eventual suicide remain vague) and what could have been done to help Connor and people like him, instead of focusing on Evan’s fake story about him. Connor was not happy and jolly as seen in Evan’s comedic imagination of him that ends up erasing Connor’s reality for comedic effect. Connor, like many other teenagers in the United States, killed himself because he hated his life.

Teaching Us To Be Reactive?

Dear Evan Hansen, did you address the fact that Connor killed himself as a result of no one in our communities knowing how to deal with people who are depressed and suicidal?

Dear Evan Hansen, did you address how we can solve the issue of poor teenage mental health around the world?

Dear Evan Hansen, do you really care about teenage mental health? The show that I watched didn’t suggest so.

Dear Evan Hansen, seeing a kid who kills himself singing and cracking jokes on stage, after he’s dead, with the same people who were complacent in the face of his depression enrages me. Hello audience members, wake up!

When you don’t act on the signs your distressed loved ones are demonstrating like Connor’s parents neglected to, one of the consequences is that they never come back. Go back off stage Connor, you don’t get to sing because your family was too late to help you. The Connor Project is only a reaction after the fact.

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Evan’s big song in “DEH,” “You Will be Found,” (the number has turned into an anthem for many teens, complete with its own hashtag) promises there is hope, but how can there be hope when “DEH” teaches us to be reactive?  We have to be proactive unless we want Connor’s story to repeat itself.

Strictly as a musical, “DEH” is beautiful, with some of the most amazing lighting, acting and singing I’ve ever seen in the same show. But it’s important to remind ourselves what theatre, and thus art is for. An artful “DEH” would remind us how serious teen mental health is, and incite conversation and circumspection about how we can better our role as members of this society.

For me, “Dear Evan Hansen” is too praised and comes up too short addressing a topic too serious to critique it lightly. But hey, see the show at the Fox Theatre, now through April 28 and judge for yourself.

And after you see the show, consider getting involved with and donating to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or the Trevor Project, or Young Minds Advocacy, or any of the other programs that actually advocate for teenage mental health.

Sincerely,

Me: Tyler Bey, 17, Maynard Jackson High School student and theatre lover

VOX teens experienced press night at “Dear Evan Hansen” at the Fox Theatre, thanks to the generosity of VOX community partners Most Valuable Kids of Greater Atlanta and Broadway in Atlanta.

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