On Dear Evan Hansen and Mental Illness in Media

(Note: This article contains spoilers for the musical Dear Evan Hansen.)

Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen is a musical about a high school senior named Evan who has severe social anxiety. Generally friendless, fresh off a summer in which he broke his arm falling out of a tree, and agonizing over potential interactions with his long time crush Zoe Murphy, Evan is required to write hopeful, pep-talk style letters to himself as a therapy assignment. “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a good day and here’s why…” In the opening scene he tries and fails to write the letter, digressing into a nervous and negative rant about his shortcomings.

From the musical’s beginning, the character of Evan Hansen speaks to something we all feel. As he sings about how he’s “on the outside always looking in,” we remember when we have felt alone, powerless, and like we don’t belong. He speaks quickly with his nerves, fidgets and hunches over constantly, and is vulnerably human.

Evan is shoved in the hallway by fellow high school senior, and Zoe’s brother, Connor Murphy. Connor is characterized as a long-time “problem child” who is often high and has some (likely) undiagnosed/untreated mental health issues, and hence is quick to misinterpret and become paranoid. At the end of the school day, as Evan finishes and prints his letter in the school computer lab, Connor reappears, seemingly to make amends for his previous outburst. He signs Evan’s cast and for a moment the audience thinks the two may come to some sort of mutual understanding. But when Connor reads the letter he pulled off the printer and sees his sister’s name his paranoia returns. He accuses Evan of leaving the letter there to freak him out and mock his reaction publicly. Despite Evan’s protests Connor storms off, taking the letter with him.

In the following days Connor Murphy is absent from school. His parents meet with Evan and reveal that Connor committed suicide with the letter in his pocket. They mistakenly think that the letter is Connor’s suicide note and that Evan was his friend. Seeing their grief and Connor’s mother’s desperation to cling to something good about her troubled son, Evan lies and invents a friendship between Connor and himself. As Evan becomes closer to the Murphy parents, and Zoe (who has very conflicting feelings about the death of her brother), his lies free him from the anxious and unhappy person he was and help him create a new identity. Soon, however, his lies spiral out of control in very public and damaging ways.

I’m simplifying somewhat for time’s sake and because it is much more beautiful and crushing through the script, staging, and music, but Dear Evan Hansen deals with mental illness, grief and how we grieve, family, and the powerful idea that you are not alone. I could write pages and pages about all of the things I love about and have learned from Dear Evan Hansen, but here I want to talk about how mental illness is represented in media, and why the portrayals of depression and anxiety in Dear Evan Hansen are illuminating and important.

Society denies the existence of mental illness and vilifies the mentally ill in equal measure. Depression and anxiety can be easy to brush off as “everybody gets sad” or “who isn’t nervous sometimes?” Yes, we experience emotions, but people with severe depression and/or anxiety often need treatment or medication for these problems. They experience more than feeling sad or nervous. Their experiences are legitimate and shouldn’t be ignored. When we see Connor lash out against Evan and his family we recognize that there is something more than simple anger going on. When we see Evan shake and stutter and freeze in fear we know that he is more than “shy” or “awkward.” We see these kids, and we find something of ourselves in them, but we know that they have serious mental health problems.

Connor Murphy’s suicide is not romantic. He is a tragic character who dies without truly being known by the people around him. He is young and troubled and does bad things but he does not deserve to die and for all that Evan’s lies do they cannot bring him back. Suicide is romanticized in media. From the “perfect love story” that some make out of Romeo and Juliet, to the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why that glamorizes revenge suicide, we are bombarded with supposed “beauty” of these deaths and don’t often see the stories of families pulled apart, and the tragedy of not realizing how someone was hurting or who they really were until it is too late.

Dear Evan Hansen shows us what healing can look like. Evan Hansen begins the musical hating himself and feeling unbearably alone. He doesn’t end the musical as the same person. Watching this show live I expected to be in tears throughout it (mostly because I had cried endlessly while listening to the soundtrack at home…I mean seriously sometimes I laugh cried at the funny moments) but I didn’t. I think I felt too much to cry. I remember my chest aching and my hands quivering and walking out of the theater feeling profoundly drained (I can’t imagine how the cast feels.) At moments in act one I felt lonely in the packed theater. During the finale I felt hopeful, not in a cheesy Disney way but in an honest and real understanding of all the work left for the character of Evan Hansen but acknowledgement of the tremendous development he undergoes throughout the story. In the finale Evan begins his letter again “Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be a good day and here’s why: because today at least you’re you — and that’s enough.”

Recovery is slow. Healing can begin with simple statements like “I am enough,” “I am not alone,” and “I matter.” Dear Evan Hansen humanizes mental illness and speaks to everyone who has ever felt lonely or worthless or like they don’t matter. The characters show us what mental illness can look like and how suicide hurts communities. It teaches us about how we grieve and why we lie. Dear Evan Hansen makes me feel more connected to the other humans with which I coexist. We are all different. We all struggle with different problems and come from different places. But we are not alone.