Mental Health in Mind
Since 2014, Dear Evan Hansen and the Child Mind Institute (CMI) have been partners in furthering awareness about youth mental health issues. On May 2, CMI marked the start of Mental Health Awareness Month with a new campaign called Dare to Share, in which famous influencers, including the singer Pink, the actress Maisie Williams, and our very own Zachary Noah Piser and Jessica Phillips, talk about the life-changing moment when they finally asked for help.
That morning, Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, CMI’s founding president and medical director, talked about how Dear Evan Hansen has changed the way many people think about mental health, and what parents can do to make sure their children get the care and attention they deserve.
What’s the inspiration behind your partnership with Dear Evan Hansen?
Prior to early readings of the show, Stacey Mindich, the producer, asked me to see it, and asked my opinion about the symptoms that Evan had and how real the show was from a psychiatrist’s point of view.
The nuance of it was really quite amazing. The opening number, where the mothers sing “Anybody Have a Map?,” rings true to anyone who is a child mental health professional. Parents don’t know who to turn to, and there is stigma and shame. It takes them a while to find out what it is that they should do to help their kid, whether their kid is a Connor or an Evan.
As time went on, we got more involved. We started participating in symposiums together, at the Aspen Institute and at Time Magazine, about how relevant the show is to so many people, and why it resonates so much. The whole theme of “you are not alone” resonates because child and adolescent health disorders are the most common set of illnesses that kids experience. There are 17 million kids who have a mental health disorder. They’re very common, and Dear Evan Hansen takes the secrecy out of the darkness and puts it on a Broadway stage.
To what extent does the show have a new relevance in the difficult time we’re living in now?
If you think about the loneliness the show talks about and how lonely adolescence can be – and then you have a pandemic and you separate kids from the classroom and each other and from sports and drama and the school newspaper. It makes everything worse.
COVID hasn’t caused mental illness, but it has affected everyone’s mental health. The majority of kids who do have a mental health disorder don’t get treated. They hide their symptoms, or their parents deny their symptoms. There are too few mental health professionals. COVID has made those kids more symptomatic.
There are two silver linings to COVID. One is telehealth. People are reaching out and getting help easier on a screen. And number two, people are talking about it. Dear Evan Hansen was ahead of its time in that way, and has a new relevance. When you have national touring companies talking about mental health, that speaks to how universal the theme is.
What can we do during Mental Health Month to make sure that people we love who are struggling with mental illness get the help they need?
If you have a teenager or a child at home, or know a teenager or child, you should know what their baseline is like. How do they sleep? What is their appetite like? What are they passionate about? What brings them joy? What are their social skills like? Are they loners or are they always surrounded by friends?
If you see a change that lasts for more than two weeks – like someone stops eating or is overeating, or is oversleeping or undersleeping – those are red flags. As a parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle or a family friend, someone should say, “I’m concerned about the big change in behavior.” People should feel there is no shame in getting professional advice. Mom and dad should be able to talk to their pediatrician, or go to ChildMind.org and look through our symptom checker.
When it’s appropriate, parents also shouldn’t hide talking about moments in their lives when they asked for help, and how things became easier. In the song “So Big/So Small,” Evan’s mother sings about it, and that’s exactly what you want to help a kid with. Parents should tell their children that even when something feels so big, when you open up the window and look out together, you realize: It’s going to get better. You just need to ask for help.