*Disclaimer-the following article contains spoilers to both Dear Evan Hansen and 13 Reasons Why. If you plan on seeing either and wish to maintain some mystery, please save for later 😊*
It’s been a struggle to write this piece. There’s so much to say, and so many aspects to these stories that it appears to barely touch the surface of what it could be. Let me start with this, both Dear Evan Hansen and 13 Reasons Why were shows that struck a chord and stayed with me for days, weeks, and now months churning within my soul.
Suicide. It’s the elephant in the room, the topic no one wants to discuss despite the desperate need for it to be a topic in every household. It’s mostly fear that keeps it at bay. Like cancer, or accidents, there is this superstition that seems logical, if we just don’t talk about it, it can’t touch us. But that’s not true. And it’s the hiding and avoidance that truly keeps suicide as a dirty little secret which hampers the ability to fight it.
Let’s start with Dear Evan Hansen. I had the good fortune to see this play roughly a month ago. I got a resale ticket and sat at the end of a row that slowly filled in my section of the mezzanine with middle school kids on a weekend trip to NYC. Spanning 4 rows, there were probably 30-40 of them, and while my first thought was “well they smell like teenagers,” everyone settled in for a show that draws the entire audience in from any era. The show itself might have been enough, the story carries weight of longing, of not fitting in, on wanting, and sadly, of one of the possible acts all those things bring to a youth when it’s not there and they see no other way out. Suicide. Evan is our protagonist, our hero, a casted socially awkward kid thrown into a situation that makes him much more complex. He lies, and lies again, despite seeming like the type to never do that. So, you wonder why? You see, Evan is all of us, we relate to him as he sings about looking in to the world from the outside always wishing to be seen. That after getting hurt time and time again we shut everything out, hoping that someone, anyone will see us.
“On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve always been?
‘Cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass
I’m waving through a window
I try to speak, but nobody can hear
So I wait around for an answer to appear
While I’m watch, watch, watching people pass
I’m waving through a window, oh
Can anybody see, is anybody waving back at me?”
There’s a reoccurring theme of falling and whether you really crash or make a sound if no one is around. If a tree falls… This is the question that we forget when we look at each other, especially our youth. If they feel unseen, unheard, do they think they don’t matter? Would you? Eventually you begin to believe that the only possible common denominator is you. We watch Evan lie to the family of a young boy, Connor who commits suicide, thinking he’s doing so out of a positive, but misguided attempt to ease their pain after a misunderstanding leads them to believe they had been friends. But that’s not the reason. The reason, the all too clear reason is that Evan does it because he was Connor just a few months prior, he was the result of an unsuccessful suicide attempt that not even his mother knows about. Stating he broke his arm falling from tree at a park. Which he did, just on purpose. And he’s not out of the woods yet. It’s for this reason, that when startled and starts speaking from the heart he speaks so clearly about the feeling of loneliness, of trying to reach out and find someone, anyone.
“Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
When you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
So let the sun come streaming in
‘Cause you’ll reach up and you’ll rise again
If you only look around
You will be found”
To say the play is moving is an understatement. To say it changes you is up to you, but when the lights came on at intermission, I looked around at my company of teenagers to gauge their response. Most of them were crying. The others speaking softly or staring ahead. They didn’t instantly reach for their phones or start chatting with their friend of the day’s activities. It wasn’t a few teenage girls as some might think, it was equal if not skewed towards the males who seemed most affected. Now, I might not be a social worker who is currently in direct practice, but you can take the social worker out of practice, but not the practice out of a social worker. I had to know, “Are you guys okay? Is there something I can do?” After distributing the necessary amount of tissues that all mental health professionals are required to carry at all times, I listened, and I heard them in practically one voice simply state, they understood, they felt it, and they never realized they weren’t alone. These 13-14 year old’s took in this play and realized that regardless of how they were feeling, they weren’t alone.
The power of that realization. An onlooker would have though these young boys and girls crying were broken, I had sat in less than stunned silence, but they just drew in a power that I can only hope stays with them. They are not alone. And in this age, regardless of where they are and who they’re with, they understand that they can reach out and know they are not alone. They can be found. We just can’t be afraid of what we might hear.
So what does a Tony award winning Broadway play have to do with an acclaimed Netflix series based off a book? Everything.
I’ve heard a lot of reactions to 13 Reasons Why, many praise it, some despise it. I’ve taken my time weighing in because I think it needs a proper advocate. There were many who believed this series romanticized suicide, and would only lead to the impressionable or those thinking of suicidal ideations to finally act. For lack of a better term, that’s crap. As those who work this field know, talking about suicide doesn’t lead to suicide. Saying the word won’t put it into a person’s head. And if you try to sugar coat it, you will be misled. To talk about suicide, you need to ask about suicide, about killing yourself. If you ask any other way, you leave too many loopholes.
This show, more than even the book (and to have me like a film version better than a book is a rarity indeed), showed the devastation of suicide. To the families, the friends, the loved ones. It leaves you breathless and hurting. It speaks to the human condition, because not one person hasn’t had the thought “what would the world be like without me?” It also shows the fragility of our youth. Those who speak against it don’t want to look suicide in the face, but the truth is especially when talking about suicides in young people we’re talking about a population who do not yet have the developed foresight adults do, and even adults aren’t immune. And yes it’s true, some might say that 13 Reasons paints suicide as another’s fault. That the choice she made was blamed on those individuals on those tapes. And although we might want to discount that, the most awful truth is that our actions, our words, and our inactions do impact other’s lives. We can incite violence, sow hatred just as easily as we can develop a friendship, have someone fall in love. Perhaps it is easier to do the former. Suicide will always remain the end choice of the individual, however, as we’ve seen just recently with the despicable case of a girlfriend egging her boyfriend on, no one is immune after time. We wear down, become vulnerable until even those we saw as strong and impenetrable fall victim to it as we wonder “how?”
13 Reasons Why was beautiful as it was heartbreaking. Haunting as Clay is endearing. And because it begins with the knowledge that Hannah is no more, we spend the series with an ache that we didn’t get there in time. And then we instinctively reach out to those we love just to say hello, I love you, I miss you. Just for a moment we decide to tell someone they’re important, to smile at the stranger across the train, to be kind. To ask, and truly listen to the age-old question “How are you?” And make sure they too will be heard.
It’s time we bring suicide out of the shadows and into the light. Only light will save us. Suicide is a monster of the darkness, it thrives off the timidness of looking the other way, of being taboo. Our youth, our military, our veterans, and middle age, and our elderly are never out of danger. When we believe that our words and actions can’t be held accountable to what another does we continue to lose lives that held the promise of our brightest future dimmed by a belief that they weren’t worthy enough to have a place there. It’s time to look.
Of course, it’s not just suicide that 13 Reasons deals with, it’s everything we wish we didn’t have to know. Drugs, sex, alcohol, rape, betrayal, friendships die and true love lies. Bullies are found where you’d expect, and where you wouldn’t. Those who might be allies ends up turning on you, betraying their true nature. And we’re left wishing that what was left unsaid had been said. Just like reality. I regret not the things I have said, even if they still lost me who and what I wanted, but rather wish I did so sooner in life. Even if it causes pain it is worth it. The price of love might be loss, but we are often too afraid to pay, and then we lose it anyway.
So speak up. Be kind. And continue to push back the darkness. It is the only way to truly understand why suicide is an epidemic we can’t find a way forward. And it’s time to reach out and be found.
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