Spoiler Alert: This piece contains spoilers for the musical theatre production, Dear Evan Hansen
Trigger Warning: Suicide
Dear Evan Hansen is a Tony Award-winning musical currently running at Center Theatre Group (CTG) in Los Angeles through the end of July. In the musical, we meet Evan, a high school senior who struggles with social anxiety, abandonment issues, and feelings of being misunderstood. One day in the library, Connor, a classmate, finds a letter that Evan had written to his therapist. After Connor takes his own life that same evening, Evan’s letter is discovered by Connor’s parents and is assumed to be a suicide note. As details emerge, without thinking, Evan fabricates an elaborate story of his close friendship with Connor to cover up the truth about his letter. His story snowballs as he begins to feel closer to his classmates, friends, and Connor’s family.
The theme of suicide is ever-present throughout the production; however, CTG does not specifically acknowledge the impact this could have on the patrons, nor do they provide sufficient resources for people who may be impacted. For example, there was no display providing the contact information for the suicide prevention hotline, no announcement, and no resources in the printed program. The CTG website does, however, have a disclaimer stating, “Please be advised that this production will employ the use of atmospheric effects such as haze and lighting effects. Recommended for ages 12+ for mature themes.” Unfortunately, this disclaimer is insufficient and misses the mark on a critical opportunity for suicide prevention.
Suicide is a public health issue that is widespread but is also preventable. The United Health Foundation estimates that 12.2 million people in the United States each year struggle with suicidal thoughts, and 1.2 million of these people die each year as a result of suicide. One of the main methods of preventing suicide is to account for what researchers and mental health professionals have come to know as the suicide contagion effect. The suicide contagion effect is a phenomenon by which people who have been exposed to suicide, including suicide as a narrative, can have an increase in suicidal thoughts and suicidal behavior. Adolescents are at particularly high risk of this phenomenon.
The effect has been explored in media and entertainment specifically because of the ability for content to reach massive and impressionable audiences quickly. For example, in April 2019, the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published a study exploring the suicide contagion effect after the release of the Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why. The study‘s results were concerning. Researchers concluded that after the series release in March of 2017, suicide rates in the United States among adolescents aged 10–17 increased by 28%. Furthermore, this rise was the highest researchers had seen since 2013. As a result of the study and recommendations from mental health professionals, the producers of 13 Reasons Why decided to cut a disturbing scene where the protagonist takes her life. Additionally, they added an announcement at the end of each episode, which included the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
The current production of Dear Evan Hansen at CTG has the potential to cause similar, devastating, unintentional harm. The Ahmanson Theatre, specifically, has a 2000-seat capacity, and there currently are a scheduled 38 runs of the show. In numbers, this means that approximately 76,000 patrons could see the current production and be exposed to suicide contagion who were not sufficiently warned or provided with appropriate and life-saving resources.
In a time of deep emotional suffering for many, especially adolescents, storytelling provides catharsis for both the creators and the consumers. Television, movies, and theatre productions are essential to well-being. At the same time, it is the artistic creators’ responsibility to create art ethically, especially when dealing with sensitive topics such as suicide.
In 2019, the World Health Organization released a resource guide for filmmakers and others in the entertainment industry. The guide warns of the suicide contagion effect and outlines twelve crucial recommendations. Of note, the authors discuss the importance of providing resources to consumers, including a way for parents to talk to their children about suicide. Furthermore, they recommend consultation with health professionals and persons with lived experience and the use of appropriate disclaimers. To the leaders of Center Theatre Group — there’s still time do better. We must all do better.
To read the complete WHO resource guide click here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide, there is hope. Please call: National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1–800–273-TALK (8255) or The Trevor Project 1–866–488–7386