Writing by Kim Koelmeyer
Dear Evan Hansen, hot off its 6 Tonys including Best Musical, is an honest and poignant representation of mental illness in today’s youth (and is told much more responsibly than 13 Reasons Why, may I add). The musical excels at displaying mental illness in its many forms, from crippling social anxiety to aggressive depression, and ultimately shows that mental health issues are complex, nuanced, and not always what meets the eye.
Titular character Evan Hansen is one of the obvious cases. He has severe social anxiety, to the point where he has trouble forming sentences around most people. His intense fears about communicating with people is shown extensively to the audience, as even the smallest things such as ordering take out is so enormous, that he would rather go without dinner. The best thing about Evan’s character is that although he is shown have such anxious tendencies, he is written in a way that everyone can relate to and empathise with. The song “Waving Through a Window” illustrates Evan’s frustration of being on the outside looking in, yet lacking the skills to bring himself inside- a feeling we have all felt at some point.
The beauty in relating Evan to the audience is that it bridges the gap between the neuro- typical majority and those with mental health issues, which helps us have more of an understanding of his thinking, as well as see that he is suffering from more than your everyday anxiety. He is the perfect combination of relatability and reality that makes a faithful representation of mental illness, so it’s so heartwarming that his story is attracting so much popularity.
Another clear example is Connor Murphy. Though he is portrayed as anti-social and aggressive, he is clearly deeply troubled and depressed, as he takes his life within the first few scenes of the show. Connor’s situation shows that mental illness can make people unlikeable and hard to be around, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t in need of help, or aren’t deserving of that help. Because “no one deserves to be forgotten.” Even though we aren’t positioned to empathise with Connor, his character teaches us a lot about mental illness. For one, it shows that one’s life circumstances doesn’t dictate one’s mental state. By all accounts, Connor has it pretty good. He comes from a fairly well-off family and has both parents around. He should be fine, more than fine. But he isn’t. Connor demonstrates that mental illness doesn’t purely stem for unfortunate circumstances; the relationship is nuanced and cyclical.
While Connor and Evan’s issues are more front and centre, DEH also shines a light on mental health issues that aren’t as pronounced. Alana Beck is what can only be described as an over achiever. She has multitudes of internships to speak of, and is seen by the audience as the girl that’s way too enthusiastic about everything. However, little things in her performance hint at something beneath the surface. One clear example is during one of the scene transitions. Alana walks across the stage, singing the refrain of “Waving Through a Window,” suggesting that she is plagued by the same thoughts that Evan is, and is just dealing with it in a different way. This shows that mental illness can be present in anyone, no matter how the surface may look. She is the perfect example of a high functioning anxiety, something I can definitely relate to, although probably not on a clinical level.
Dear Evan Hansen is a milestone in the media’s portrayal of mental health. It helps us relate to more pronounced cases, and shows that it can manifest itself in places we may never suspect. As an issue that has been largely mishandled, it’s so refreshing to see a faithful and nuanced look at mental illness take off as much as it has.