Why would you spend several hundred dollars and eat up your airline miles and hotel points to fly your two teenagers to New York City to see a Broadway show about teen suicide?
Believe me, I asked myself that question several times in the weeks leading up to our family weekender in New York a couple of weeks ago.
But if the show is the Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen, and the suicide rate in your country is inexplicably skyrocketing, and in the very week of your trip both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain take their own lives, and you could use an explicit way to raise a tough topic with your teens – you go.
(Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen Dear Evan Hansen yet, you are forewarned.)
Wait a minute – Dear Evan Hansen is about teen suicide? Well, yes – the entire show is premised on the unexplained suicide of Evan Hansen’s classmate, Connor Murphy. That tragic fact is the heart of a well-written and tightly-performed exploration of the impact of Connor’s suicide on his family and classmates. I say “classmates” because Connor had no friends, abused drugs, and was estranged from and cruel to his family.
THE STATS AND FACTS
The suicide rate in the United States is going up. Yes. Definitely. In fact, the same week we headed to Broadway – the same week of the Spade and Bourdain deaths – the Centers for Disease Control released a new report: in nearly half of the fifty states, from 1999 to 2016, the rates of suicide increased by more than 30%. In 2016, nearly 45,000 lives were lost to suicide. The suicide rate in the state where I grew up — Utah — increased a whopping 46.5% in those 17 years. My current home state of South Carolina saw an increase of 38.3%. The entire U.S. increase was 25.4%.
But even before that report, I could have told you something similar anecdotally. My kids’ high school averages around a suicide a year. Suicide has touched my own family tree, and the lives of my friends’ families. It can’t be ignored.
I’ve been a dad for nearly 21 years. And a traveling dad for most of that time. But the traveling means nothing without the dad part.
I have no answers for the tough question – why are so many youth taking their own lives? I’m not an expert in mental health.
I’m a dad. To paraphrase David O. McKay, the greatest work I will ever do will be within the walls of my home. With my family. My kids. My now-teenagers.
I’d gladly give up travel forever to know that my kids would forever be safe, would never contemplate suicide, would never fall into a darkness so profound that death appeared to be the only escape.
Here’s my passport – take it now.
Because I’m a dad and I love my kids, I have to talk to them about hard things. If I don’t do it, someone else might. Or maybe nobody will. Which is worse?
I need to know my kids, what they’re doing, what they think and feel and love and detest. What makes them happy and sad and motivated and inspired.
As it happens, they like to travel as much as I do, and family travel is a great way to “force” family time.
So, off we went to New York City. And I bought us all tickets to Dear Evan Hansen. My wife and I saw it more than a year ago, pre-Tony awards, simply because I’m a theater geek and love all things Broadway. We didn’t rush into the decision to take them – it’s an adult-themed show with adult language and heavy discussions about life, death, honesty, social media, popularity, self-awareness, and self-delusion.
But if not now – at the ages of 14 and 17 – when? When is the “right” time to talk about this thing?
THE SHOW PART II
We saw the show. The kids already were familiar with the music – I’d been playing it around the house for more than a year. But from the music alone they couldn’t have known the breadth and depth of the story.
We laughed, we pondered, and we cried. We saw ourselves in Evan Hansen’s teenage awkwardness and anxieties, and in Connor’s parents’ sadness, regret, and helplessness.
After the show, we talked about social media, how it can distort reality, and how it can encourage us to make false comparisons between our own daily lives and the apparent “fun stuff every day” of others’ lives. How it can foster misunderstanding and contention, and how it can get wildly out of control in one’s life.
(To wit: in the New York Times review, Charles Isherwood dutifully and beautifully pointed out that “[t]he set … features a series of scrims across which … projections — of tweets and Facebook posts and Instagram feeds — almost constantly scroll, evoking the sometimes treacherous, sometimes buoying virtual waters in which high-schoolers swim.” And when Evan Hansen sings about “tap, tap, tapping on the glass, waving through a window” he’s explicitly talking about looking in on other’s lives through the flaky filter of social media.)
We also talked about the shock of finding out toward the end of the show that the arm cast worn by Evan Hansen from the beginning of the show and throughout Act 1 didn’t result from his falling out of a tree. Instead, through the deceased character of Connor Murphy, we discovered that Evan himself attempted suicide – his broken arm the only visible sign of his inner pain.
My kids know I love them. They know life is beautiful, and by design has challenges that are unique to each person. None of them has shown any signs or indicators of being anything other than a normal teenager.
But will they know me and trust me enough to come to me if they feel anxious, depressed, sad, lonely, or hopeless? Will they talk to me if they’re being bullied, or if they’re in a situation that seems really, really bad? Can I put myself in between them and the consequences of an unfixable choice?
There’s no certainty of that, but we are a few steps closer now than we were a few weeks ago.
In the meantime, we’ll keep talking, we’ll keep traveling, and I’ll keep being the best dad I know how to be. Even if it seems like they aren’t listening.
How to Help
Know the 12 Suicide WARNING SIGNS
- Feeling like a burden
- Being isolated
- Increased anxiety
- Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Increased substance use
- Looking for a way to access lethal means
- Increased anger or rage
- Extreme mood swings
- Expressing hopelessness
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Talking or posting about wanting to die
- Making plans for suicide
5 Steps to help someone at risk
- Keep them safe.
- Be there.
- Help them connect.
- Follow up.