Broadway's Sneak Peek Into Suicide and the Secret Life of Adolescents
By Jennie Park-Taylor, Merle Keitel
People often attend the theater to escape, even if only briefly, their own realities, but what happens when art imitates life?
Two Tony Award-nominated musicals "Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812" and "Dear Evan Hansen" provide a glimpse of the dark, stormy, and clandestine world of adolescence through the show's stirring portrayal of teenage social pressures, anxiety, depression, and suicide.
Natasha of "The Great Comet," is a beautiful, 19- year-old Russian countess, who, after tarnishing her and her family's reputation in a scandalous flirtation with Anatole, a charming but already married aristocrat, tries to end her life by swallowing poison. In "Dear Evan Hansen," Evan is an anxious and socially isolated 17-year-old high school student, who is so desperate to belong that he perpetuates a lie about being close friends with a classmate who commits suicide.
Indeed, suicide is being portrayed on Broadway, but teenage suicide is a painfully real phenomenon. Suicide is on the rise and a leading cause of death among 15 to 24-year-old individuals, second only to accidents. Clearly, our teens are hurting and they're hurting badly; however, the overwhelming majority of kids are not at risk for death by suicide.
In most cases, suicide can be linked to a history of untreated depression, other mood disorders, and substance abuse. In teens, loneliness, social isolation, grief from a significant loss, broken relationships, or significant transitions can trigger a major depressive episode and suicidal ideation among youth who are at risk due to mental illness.
In "Dear Evan Hansen," Connor Murphy exhibits many of the warning signs of suicide. Connor, who commits suicide early in the show, had an extensive history of mental illness and abusing substances as well as a previous suicide attempt. He was also physically aggressive with others from a very young age and extremely socially isolated. Natasha, in contrast, overtly displayed very few signs of suicide risk. Instead, she appeared to be struggling with normative issues of adolescence, such as generalized insecurity, emotional lability, impulsivity, and obsession with romance, which is why it comes as a major surprise that she would go to such extremes as killing herself. However, it is possible that Natasha, like so many teenagers we have lost to suicide, had a dark and painful private life despite her carefree and happy public persona (i.e., the duplicitous life of a teenager).
Many teenagers mask their insecurities by presenting a false bravado in some instances and a feigned apathy in others. We see this in Evan's relationship with his mother versus the reality of his internal universe. He tells his mother he's fine, yet his deep suffering persists. In a world of selfies, photo editor apps and filters, today's youth have perfected the game of make believe and are almost always wearing the false-self mask they present to the world and even to their parents. Evan's family friend Jared says: "Literally nothing I tell my parents is true and they have no idea." Maybe it's the duplicitous nature of adolescence that frightens parents most because if their child is suffering but hides it, how will they know when to intervene, how much to interfere, and what to do or say?
Parents wrestle with fears about their teens' well-being and often feel helpless about how to reach them. "The Great Comet" and "Dear Evan Hansen" provide a springboard for families to discuss the struggles of adolescence, mental illness, and suicide.
Both productions illuminate the need for adolescents to belong and our inherent need to love and be loved and portray mental illness and suicide in a way that promotes empathy and understanding.
As a society, we clearly need to do more to prevent our youth from traveling down a lonely path towards depression and self-injury. We must increase awareness of the signs of depression and risk factors for suicide and decrease the stigma associated with seeking counseling and psychotherapy. If your teenage son or daughter is suffering, seeking help from a mental health professional is not only courageous and responsible, it may also be life-saving.
Jennie Park-Taylor is associate professor of counseling psychology at Fordham University's Graduate School of Education. Merle Keitel is a professor of counseling and counseling psychology at Fordham University.
Photos: Matthew Murphy