Bravo “Dear Evan Hansen”

“Dear Evan Hansen” is a musical about teenagers in the age of social media dealing with anxiety, confusion, loneliness, hurt, and suicide. A brilliant, cathartic narrative for our times, it cries out for us to recognize human fragility and empathize with it.

 

 

That message spread far beyond Broadway on Sunday night when “Dear Evan Hansen” won six Tony Awards, including for best musical, best actor, and best score. The musical’s cast album, with songs like “You Will Be Found,” “Requiem,” and “Waving Through a Window,” debuted in the Billboard Top 10 earlier this year.

Best-actor winner Ben Platt, who is 23, reached out to vulnerable teenagers in his acceptance remarks during the nationally televised ceremony at Radio City Music Hall:

“To all young people watching at home, don’t waste any time trying to be like anybody but yourself, because the things that make you strange are the things that make you powerful.”

In the plot, anxiety-ridden teen Evan Hansen writes pep-talk letters to himself on the advice of his therapist. One of the letters ends up in the pocket of a social outcast named Connor, who then dies by suicide. The Connor connection takes Evan into a swirl of lies as he fabricates stories about a friendship with Connor and pursues the crush he has on Connor’s sister. Evan achieves temporary social media-fueled fame as a campaigner to aid other youth experiencing Connor’s mental health struggles. Evan’s charade collapses, but the ordeal brings him to a reconciliation with his single-parent mom and to healthier self-awareness.

“Dear Evan Hansen” has been praised for its sensitive handling of mental disorders and suicide. The production has openly associated itself with mental health and suicide prevention organizations like the Child Mind Institute, the Crisis Text Line, The Jed Foundation, and The Trevor Project.

The show’s songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won the Tony Award for best original score, spoke to Variety about the care they took in writing about teen suicide. As Paul put it:

“We wanted to make sure the subject was treated thoughtfully and sensitively. There was vetting of the script and of the story with mental health professionals, to make sure what we were telling felt truthful and honest, and like we weren’t trying to sugarcoat things, but that also wasn’t trying to provoke anything. There’s a small change in the show that we made between Second Stage and Broadway, the addition of two little lines toward the very, very end of the show, that we added after some feedback that we’d gotten from families of teenagers or people who had taken their own lives.”

 

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TIME’s Susanna Schrobsdorff captures the incredible impact “Dear Evan Hansen” is having on teenagers—and their parents:

Ask one of the many teenagers in the audience if the play seems authentic and they can barely get the words out. They say things like, “I’m in shock, it’s so good.” And often, right behind them, is a parent who’s also feeling undone. I lost it in the first act when the two stellar actors who play mothers of teens sing about feeling totally unqualified for the job of being a parent. “Does anybody have a map?” they cry. “Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?”

13 Reasons Why: Warning Label

The new Netflix series 13 Reasons Why is generating alarm among many mental health professionals and suicide prevention experts, who are concerned about the risks of glamorizing suicide and the possibility of contagion.

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Netflix kicked up a controversy with the series released on March 31 about a high school junior named Hannah who takes her own life. The series received a 91 percent critics approval rating and an 88 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics praised the cast’s performances and the “authentic,” “sensitive,” and “hard hitting” portrayal of teenager angst.

However, 13 Reasons Why needs a warning label. The National Association of School Psychologists cautions that the series should not be viewed by vulnerable young people who experience any degree of suicidal ideation. NASP warns:

“Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies. They may easily identify with the experiences portrayed and recognize both the intentional and unintentional effects on the central character. Unfortunately, adult characters in the show, including the second school counselor who inadequately addresses Hannah’s pleas for help, do not inspire a sense of trust or ability to help.”

NASP has problems with the accuracy of how mental illness and suicide are portrayed in the series. For example, it is concerned that the series does not emphasize that common among most suicide deaths is the presence of treatable mental illnesses. And that suicide is not the simple consequence of stressors or coping challenges, but rather, it is most typically a combined result of treatable mental illnesses and overwhelming or intolerable stressors.

Despite the strong misgivings, some see the widespread publicity around 13 Reason Why as an opportunity at least to spread greater awareness about suicide and suicide prevention. NASP says that the controversy is an “opportunity to better understand young people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings,” educate parents, teachers, and students alike about suicide risk warning signs, and reinforce the message that suicide is not a solution to problems.

NASP advises that school psychologists and other school-employed mental health professionals can assist stakeholders such as school administrators, parents, and teachers to engage in supportive conversations with students as well as provide resources and offer expertise in preventing harmful behaviors. NASP published “Considerations for Educators,” guidance on 13 Reasons Why. Download it here.

Experts say if you’re thinking about the safest and best way to lead a discussion with teens about 13 Reasons Why and suicide, read the tip sheet co-authored by Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) and the JED Foundation. Click here to download the tip sheet.

Some recommended reading from experts on the subject of suicide contagion:

Preventing Suicide With A “Contagion Of Strength” (National Public Radio February 25, 2015)

The Science Behind Suicide Contagion (New York Times, August 14, 2014)

Teen suicide: Prevention is Contagious, Too (Christian Science Monitor, December 8, 2013)

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

The Watershed Declaration

Community mental health stakeholders representing 18 organizations on Monday declared suicide a “serious public health concern” and pledged to intensify suicide prevention efforts in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

GarraLloyd-Lester                       Garra Lloyd-Lester, associate director of the Suicide Prevention Center New York

The call to action, known as The Watershed Declaration, was adopted by acclamation at the close of a meeting of leaders from Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, non-profit organizations, and the campuses of Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.

The Watershed Declaration stated as follows:

“We the assembled mental health stakeholders of the greater Ithaca community and Tompkins County recognize suicide as a serious public health concern. Today we renew our commitment to suicide prevention and pledge to intensify efforts toward saving lives and bringing hope to those struggling with suicide thoughts or affected by suicide loss.”

Lee-Ellen Marvin, executive director of the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service in Ithaca, praised the call to action. “I was excited and moved to see leaders from different parts of our social service community together in one room, thinking about and committing to suicide prevention,” she said. “There is indeed a public health crisis, and the way to prevent suicide is with awareness, vigilance, and the willingness of all parts of society to commit to this effort.”

Addressing the gathering at The Watershed in Ithaca, Garra Lloyd-Lester, associate director of the Suicide Prevention Center New York, announced plans to convene a “key stakeholders” meeting in June with the aim of establishing a suicide prevention coalition in Tompkins County.

Lloyd-Lester explained that suicide is increasingly seen as a public health problem rather than just an issue to be handled by an individual and their therapist.

“Operationally, that means we can all play a role in helping individuals who might be struggling with thoughts of suicide, to help keep them safe,” said Lloyd-Lester. “Seeing the folks here today it is really reflective of this idea that suicide is everybody’s business. That is the mantra that the state talks about: suicide prevention is everybody’s business.”

Sharon MacDougall, Deputy Commissioner of Mental Health Services in Tompkins County, welcomed the state’s initiative. “Suicide prevention efforts in Tompkins County are strong and need collaboration among all our agencies, providers, and groups like The Sophie Fund,” she said. “A Suicide Prevention Coalition will help bring these efforts together in close collaboration—providing a unified and passionate Tompkins County voice advocating zero suicides in our county.”

Monday’s meeting was organized by The Sophie Fund, which advocates for improved mental health for young people in the greater Ithaca area.

 

Understanding and Compassion

Suicide is a difficult thing to grasp or absorb. That is partly because of ignorance about suicide, which in turn is driven by the stigma around suicide and mental illness. The truth is that there’s much that every one of us can do to prevent suicide, if we put out hearts and minds into it.

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Many experts agree that fighting stigma has a big role in the effort. Suicide has complex causes, and often mental illness is a big factor. The stigma prevents too many people from seeking help, and prevents others from reaching out or providing appropriate support to people in need. A writer for The Mighty has this advice for us: “Talk about all of those topics that are taboo, get information, make them come alive, so if someone comes to you with a mental condition, they know you will listen.”

A good place to start, if you haven’t done so already, is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Its website provides quick resources about Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs, and how to Find Support if you are having thoughts of suicide or are worried about someone who might be at risk.

Want to help more? AFSP has a Take Action web page with opportunities to get involved in suicide prevention.

Removing the Stigma for LGBTQ Teens

An important new study says that suicide attempts by American high school students decreased by 7 percent in states that passed laws to legalize same-sex marriage. The rate decreased by 14 percent among students identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

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“State same-sex marriage policies were associated with a reduction in the proportion of high school students reporting suicide attempts, providing empirical evidence for an association between same-sex marriage policies and mental health outcomes,” said the study, published by JAMA Pediatrics, a journal of the American Medical Association, on February 20. “We estimated that, each year, same-sex marriage policies would be associated with more than 134 000 fewer adolescents attempting suicide. These results reflect an important reduction in adolescent emotional distress and risk of mortality from suicide.”

The study concluded:

“We provide evidence that implementation of same-sex marriage policies reduced adolescent suicide attempts. As countries around the world consider enabling or restricting same-sex marriage, we provide evidence that implementing same-sex marriage policies was associated with improved population health. Policymakers should consider the mental health consequences of same-sex marriage policies.”

Study leader Julia Raifman of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health speculated that the same-sex marriage laws diminished a social stigma by making LGBTQ people feel equal and supported by the wider social community.

Victor Schwartz, a chief medical officer of the JED Foundation, told the PBS NewsHour that the feelings of being accepted and connected to society have “a protective effect in relation to suicide risk, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behaviors. It’s a real risk factor, a feeling that you’re at odds with your family or community. It’s very painful, and can be very frightening. You feel like you’re going to be left out on your own.”

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents between the ages of 15 and 24 years. The prevalence of suicide attempts is four times greater among LGBTQ youth.

The Johns Hopkins study looked at 32 of the 35 states that legalized same-sex marriage between 2004 and 2015, comparing suicide rates in those states to suicide rates in states that did not legalize same-sex marriage. In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage for all Americans.

Download a PDF of the study here.