Editorial: The Forgotten Character and Irony of Dear Evan Hansen

It surpasses ironic.

The Connor Project: A fictitious movement based on a fictitious story conceived by the minds behind the fictitious Broadway play Dear Evan Hansen. For many, however, this project enabled the most real feelings they have experienced in a long time. Children, teens, and adults alike – who have felt overlooked for much of their lives – felt like they mattered.

How could a Broadway show elicit such powerful feelings? Dear Evan Hansen follows the story of its title character – Evan Hansen. Evan is a high school kid believed to have been the best and only friend of classmate Connor Murphy, who loses his life to suicide early in the play. Desperately wanting answers, Connor’s parents turn to Evan to learn about the life of the son they hardly knew. The challenge: Evan must contend with this role thrust upon him while battling his depression and crushing social anxiety, an illness so powerful that Evan would sooner lie in bed starving through the night than have to interact with the pizza delivery man. Also of issue: Evan in reality knew next to nothing about Connor.

Evan battles through his illness and lack of knowledge about Connor to try to bring some comfort to the Murphy family by coming up with answers to their questions. As if that isn’t hard enough, at the urging of a classmate who wants to keep the memory of Evan’s “best friend” alive, Evan starts The Connor Project. The mission of the movement is to make certain nobody has to feel alone and forgotten, presumably how Connor felt before losing his life. This is as well arguably the theme of the play – nobody deserves to be forgotten.

Forgetting Alana

Enter Alana Beck. She is the before-mentioned classmate as well as the co-President of the Connor Project. There is nothing about the play that epitomizes the state of mental health more than Alana. She is the forgotten character of Dear Evan Hansen.

While Evan and Connor get most of the attention during the production itself and post-play analysis, Alana is swept away. However, she just about defines the life of high-functioning anxiety. Don’t take my word that she is struggling; take her words. Lost in the shuffle towards the end of the play is what should be a stinging cry for help from Alana. While defending her interest in the Connor Project as more than just an item for the extracurricular checklist, she bursts out, “I know what it’s like to feel invisible. Just like Connor. Invisible and alone and like nobody would even notice if I vanished into thin air.”

Alana’s High-Functioning Anxiety

In addition to this blunt plea for support, she exhibits many of the signs Psychology Today identifies with high-functioning anxiety:

-She is a perfectionist and overachiever to an unhealthy extent – as she reports early in the play that she filled her summer with three internships and ninety hours of community service. High-functioning anxiety is fueled by an incessant fear of failure.
-She constantly feels the need to be doing something, jumping to self-appoint herself as co-President of the Connor Project and frequently starting new initiatives for the project. Those with high-functioning anxiety get anxious and feel they are not doing enough to succeed if they are not constantly active.
-She has trouble making friends or feeling she has friends; rather, she throughout the plays refers to her many “close acquaintances.” It is tough for many with mental illness to accept or make friends.
-She is pent up with energy she doesn’t know what do with, leading her to interrupt fellow characters throughout. This is also a sign of high-functioning anxiety,

Despite her compelling and important story, Alana gets swallowed up by splashier storylines. How ironic that a play about forgetting nobody could allow its own character in need to be overlooked by the critics and general audience. High-functioning mental illness needs our support as all mental illness does.

The Deafening Irony

This barely scratches the irony, however. Alana Beck, in fact, epitomizes what is wrong with how mental illness is viewed. Mental illness equality cannot hold weight when competing for attention with other important issues like LGBTQ rights or women’s rights or racial equality or similar hot button issues. Nor can mental illness equality gain a following of supporters when competing with other health causes like cancer awareness or helping those with disabilities.

This runs directly contrary to what the statistics say should get our attention most. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED. Overall, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those age 10-24. (2016 CDC WISQARS)

There are too many people going through their childhood, their lives, suffering and in indescribable pain, with not nearly enough people fighting for them. So much crushing loneliness. It doesn’t have to be this way. If only mental illness was not forgotten like Alana Beck is forgotten.

Diving Into The Disparity

Why is there such disparity between garnering support for most causes and support for mental illness equality? One factor is that it is easy to feel good about oneself for contributing to Yachad or NCSY or Sharsheret or Bnei Akiva or Chai Lifeline or you name the organization. This is predominantly because of two reasons:

Firstly, with those causes, one can tangibly see the pain or problem which they are helping with. There are clear signs of a person with autism or cancer, leaving no doubt they deserve all the support possible. Mental illness, though, remains stuck in secrecy and unclarity. One cannot simply look at their friend’s debilitating social anxiety.

Secondly, involvement with all of the above organizations is universally encouraged and applauded. One can smile ear to ear while proudly writing “Yachad Coordinator” on their Shidduch (dating) resume. Boasting being a volunteer for Refuat Hanefesh or Active Minds, however, could very well be greeted with confusion.

Be Part of The Solution

Watch the Dear Evan Hansen play. Or better yet, read the book. (Word is there’s a movie coming out too.) Take in the book’s lifelike descriptions of what it’s like to live with social anxiety. Enjoy the flashy gimmicks and cry along with the fellow theatergoers at the show. But don’t forget about Alana Beck. Please, don’t watch the play only to forget that it is incumbent upon each of us to fight for mental illness equality. Do not allow yourself to be part of the irony.

Please click here to read other peer perspectives


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