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Dear Evan Hansen: What it Gets Right and Wrong About Mental Illness

Posted by Erin Fischer on

Mental illness has long been a topic of movies and as was mentioned last week, TV shows. This week another film can be added to the list of movies using mental illness as a theme, Dear Evan Hansen. This is the film version of the Tony Award Winning musical of the same name.

The basic storyline of the film/musical is that Evan Hansen (played by Ben Platt who was the first to play the role on Broadway) is a teenager suffering from social anxiety disorder and his therapist has asked to write letters to himself to boost his self-esteem. One day while writing one on a computer in the school library he accidentally presses print and it’s discovered by Connor, a student who is also suffering from his own mental health battles who takes the letter moments after signing Evan’s cast to prove that they both have friends. A few days later Connor kills himself and his parents find the letter and believe that Connor and Evan were friends, and that Connor was the one who wrote the letter for Evan as a final note. Evan decides to go along with this assumption and even embellishes it to make it seem like they were best friends. Evan finds the love and acceptance he’s always wanted but it’s built on a lie.

When the film trailer dropped it already brought up a lot of controversy as Ben Platt (you might know him from two of the three Pitch Perfect films) is a 26-year-old playing a 17-year-old and it’s rather obvious. Meanwhile the other actors in the film who are playing teenagers despite being adults are passable which makes it even more obvious. Especially the actress who plays Zoe (Kaitlyn Denver) Connor’s younger sister who Evan has a crush on, who despite being 24 easily passes as a teenager and the scenes don’t sit right. Unfortunately, this isn’t where the controversy ends and the mental health message within the film is complicated.

The message of the film is good on paper – we’re all struggling, and you never know what battles someone is fighting. The film has struggles showing this message and it can be confusing at times as to what the message really is. For starters everything is based around the lie that Evan not only knew Connor but they were best friends. Evan goes as far to get his family friend Jarred to help create a fake email thread between him and Connor which he then gives to Connor's family to prove that they were friends. Evan is never really punished for this web of lies he creates, and while he does get some consequences in that he is shunned by his school friends and is back to where he began they're small in comparison to what he deserved. You would think that mental illness would be mentioned more or that they would focus more on Connor's struggles and what lead to him killing himself but they only focus on Evan's and even then it's not a huge focus.

There were a few scenes that did feature mental illness/health though not always in the best way possible. The first one happened early in the film and was Evan getting up and taking his medication, like it was just a part of his routine and there was nothing special about taking medication. This scene got the film off to a good note but unfortunately it was all down hill from there.

The second was a scene that stood out for all the wrong reasons, which was a  scene between Evan and Alana (the class president). Where they are walking in a park and Alana straight out asks Evan what medication he's on which then leads to them both confiding in each other about their mental health struggles. While there were good intentions behind this scene they could've left this scene out as it was confronting. It also gives the example that you can just go around straight out asking people what medication they're on which isn't something you should do unless you really know the person. 

The third scene was Evan confiding in his mum what he did and about the lies and how he meant to harm himself by falling out of the tree (breaking his arm as a result). She just hugged him and told him that she loved him. There was no therapy, potential inpatient treatment or medication increase any of which would've been a good response to show after the hug. While therapy was also mentioned in the film, we never met Evan's therapist or saw him in therapy. It would've been interesting and beneficial to see a professionals opinion on what was going on in Evan's world/mind. 

I wouldn't say that Dear Evan Hansen accurately portrays mental illness in the real world and there are scenes that could be triggering to people who have battled their own mental health struggles (there was warning before the movie started stating this). While the theme of mental illness is there, it's only surface deep and the few times it does go deep aren't portrayed the most accurately. While it's made with good intention it doesn't hit the mark. If you're watching it because you enjoy musicals then you will enjoy it. The songs are catchy and the lyrics of the songs have good messages (The Anonymous Ones and You Will Be Found especially). However, if you're watching it because of the mental illness themes and conversations around it you will be disappointed. 

I'm curious to know your thoughts if you have seen the movie or if you will go see it? Leave a comment below and lets the conversation started. Or feel free to drop by, just say, ‘Hey Erin’ in strict confidence and you can be anonymous if you wish.

Further readings:

Words Fail: “Dear Evan Hansen” Is an Obvious Disservice to Mental-Health Representation 

Dear Evan Hansen: Show Creators, Experts Talk Mental Health 

'Dear Evan Hansen' reveals the messy realities of teen mental health 

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ cast says mental health awareness inspired their performances: ‘We wanted to be part of the solution’ 

“Dear Evan Hansen” Isn’t the Hot Take on Mental Health You Think It Is 

Dear Evan Hansen Review: A Monumental Misfire about Mental fHealth 

Dear Evan Hansen movie deploys Ben Platt and emotion to smooth narrative flaws of Tony Award-winning musical 

How did Dear Evan Hansen go from Broadway hit to screen miss? 

A Critical Look at ‘Dear Evan Hansen’


About Erin Fischer

Am the qualified mental health professional at Barty Single Origin. Write topical pieces with a focus on mental health. Always available on chat, Just say, 'Hey Erin'. Passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and letting people know it's A-OK to be not OK. Mental health advocate, Anxiety survivor, baker, crafter, cat lover, blogger, and always down to get a coffee and chat.


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