During the development of Dear Evan Hansen, lead producer Stacey Mindich realized that her show’s focus on the emotional turmoil of its teenage characters might hit home with young people struggling with feelings of isolation. In the Tony Award-winning musical, 17-year-old Evan, who suffers from social anxiety, finds himself at the center of a tragedy when a letter he writes to himself is mistaken for the suicide note of a troubled classmate.
“I always knew the show’s potential to impact people,” says Mindich, a mother of three sons. From the beginning, from the first workshop presentation of Dear Evan Hansen, she provided a list of mental health resources in the Playbill, the first being the adolescent health center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Over time, the acclaimed musical formed partnerships with five nonprofit organizations whose missions are aligned with the substance of the show.
Child Mind Institute is dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families who are struggling with mental health and learning disorders; Crisis Text Line is a free 24/7 support for those in crisis who can reach trained counselors by texting 741741; The JED Foundation offers a comprehensive, public-health approach to promoting mental health and preventing suicide; The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide-prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning young people; and Born This Way Foundation supports the wellness of young people and empowers them to create a kinder and braver world.
Each nonprofit partner offers resources and support for parents and children facing the issues portrayed on stage. “Dear Evan Hansen is helpful in shining a light on the emotional health of teens by highlighting Evan’s struggles with anxiety in an absorbing and relatable way,” says John MacPhee, executive director and CEO of The JED Foundation. “One of the surest ways of dispelling prejudice and shame is to get to know people who are experiencing a particular issue, and Dear Evan Hansen does a great job helping viewers ‘know’ Evan and helping people understand his feelings and challenges.”
For Mindich, the collaborations ensure that mental health concerns expressed by young theatergoers in person or in writing can be referred to professionals. “Our cast has been trained by The JED Foundation on how to handle troubling interactions at the stage door,” she explains. “The actors say, ‘I’m not an expert, so please look on our website. People care about you and want to help.’ Everyone on our team knows 741741, the Crisis Text Line number.”
Proceeds from the sale of select Dear Evan Hansen souvenir merchandise, including a canvas tote bag and a pouch adorned with art created by fans, benefit the show’s partners. “Every three months or so, we’re able to cut a check for $2,000 to each of these nonprofits,” Mindich says. “It’s the least we can do for organizations that save lives every day.” Beginning in May, a popular navy sweatshirt featuring a white sleeve printed with the name Connor (inspired by the arm cast Evan wears in the show) will feature a 741741 patch, an unobtrusive reminder to teens that help is available.
In joint appearances with MacPhee at New York City high schools, Mindich has seen firsthand the ripple effect of her show’s message of hope. “John tells the kids, ‘You are on the front lines. How do you talk to friends who are in trouble? How do you help yourself?’” she says. “It feels very powerful, beyond sharing the ‘coolness’ of Dear Evan Hansen.”
A long-held dream for Mindich became reality on May 10 when Time magazine hosted a special mental health roundtable featuring MacPhee, Child Mind Institute president Dr. Harold Koplewicz, Dear Evan Hansen book writer Steven Levenson, and others. Titled “You Will Be Found,” after the show’s stirring anthem (and social media hashtag), the event included an audience Q&A and a performance by the Broadway cast. The cosmetics brand Philosophy, which supports mental health initiatives, cosponsored the roundtable, which was live-streamed and recorded for future use.
Looking back over the long process of developing this completely original musical, Mindich says, “I’m not surprised by the connection people feel for the material, but I’m surprised by the [commercial] success.” She confesses that in the beginning, the producing team felt reluctant to use the words suicide or mental illness in describing the show. To her delight, Dear Evan Hansen became both a critical and financial hit, opening the door to meaningful collaborations promoting emotional health and suicide prevention. “The show is about life and how we live it, not death, and we’re embracing that,” she says.
The fact that Evan is never revealed to have a precise medical condition adds to the character’s universal appeal. “Everybody who sees the show identifies with him,” marvels Mindich. “He’s an everyman who is in a rut, a bit of a nerd and a loner who doesn’t know how to get himself out of his situation. Boy, girl, or parent, we’ve all felt like him at some point in our lives.”
Partners such as MacPhee are grateful that a piece of popular art can advance messages of inclusion and connection. “Dear Evan Hansen is doing a wonderful job educating people — especially young people — about what it is like to struggle with anxiety and other emotional problems,” he says, “and the healing power of positive personal connections.”