“Dear Evan Hansen” premieres Friday, the movie version of one of Broadway’s biggest hits in recent memory. While some critics have attacked the movie for casting decisions or for letting its hero off the hook, such complaints are missing the point. This movie has a powerful and fundamental honesty that resonates. And its primary message — that mental health disorders are real, common and treatable — will likely be a lifesaver for countless young people. Millions of kids in this country who are struggling with their mental health don’t get identified or treated, increasing the risk of later depression, school failure, substance abuse and even suicide.
I’m not a passive bystander: I’ve treated thousands of young people in my 30-plus years as a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
I’m not a passive bystander: I’ve treated thousands of young people in my 30-plus years as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. I provided consultation on mental health themes during the Broadway musical’s development — and loved the finished project so much I saw it three times in the theater. The musical beautifully captures the struggles of being a parent of young people with mental health problems. I appreciated the way the “invisible” struggles of teenagers hiding their reality from their peers became a cause other teenagers could get behind.
And I’m thrilled that the movie will help this story continue to have an impact on young people.
We are seeing more and more star athletes and celebrities opening up about the importance of mental health and their own personal struggles. This openness and increased public awareness are a testament to years of mental health advocacy. But teenagers still lack authentic, nuanced and positive depictions of their emotional lives. They need stories about how it’s OK to hurt, it’s OK to be honest about it, it’s OK to ask for help. Stories that show there aren’t quick fixes.
That is why “Dear Evan Hansen” is so valuable. I can’t recall a more evocative and revealing portrait of adolescents who struggle, parents who struggle to raise them, and the real impact of mental health disorders on our young people.
The film lets us see that anxiety disorders are equal-opportunity conditions, affect both the seeming outsiders like Evan and the more traditional high achievers like class president Alana. It explores the power of social media for good and bad.
But most potent of all, it shows that even good people make bad decisions, especially in situations where all the options are painful. It presents adolescents who make bad choices as forgivable. And it presents making those choices as a part of adolescence. This is important because adolescents often feel they’re doomed by a mistake — that’s part of the intensity of emotions that comes with their stage of brain development.
When Evan lies to Connor’s desperate, devastated parents — pretending that he was their son’s friend — he does it because he can’t bear to disappoint them. But we then watch as Evan goes from being trapped by his lie to being seduced by the warmth of this new family. And when his lie goes viral, we watch him, painfully, get into bigger and bigger trouble.
Evan’s journey is more Shakespeare than Horatio Alger — but that’s the point. It doesn’t have a phony Hollywood ending. But it does have growth and learning and hope for our hero, and for his peers in high school.
Hopefully, it resonates with the millions of real teens out there who feel they are also outsiders, “tapping on the glass,” particularly those who are struggling to find themselves while coping with an anxiety disorder. Finding yourself — helping yourself — amid the tumult and the mixed messages of adolescence is hard for even the most well-adjusted teen. It is a real challenge for those who struggle with unseen problems such as anxiety or depression.
When I speak about child and adolescent mental health, I often note that an estimated 1 in 5 young people in the U.S. struggles with a mental health or learning disorder. But numbers don’t touch the heart the way stories do. And that’s why the nuanced, understanding and ultimately undeniable story of “Dear Evan Hansen” is so important.