Alex Boniello knew the kind of fan mail he might get when he joined the Broadway cast of “Dear Evan Hansen,” the hit musical that revolves around teen suicide and severe social anxiety.
There were, of course, the usual letters from high school students who want to make it to Broadway and young fans who profess a crush. But he knew there would be messages, too, from fans who wanted to open up about their own mental health issues, including some who shared thoughts about suicide. He’d gotten some when he portrayed Moritz in “Spring Awakening.” And now, as Connor, he gets a flood.
“I get so, so, so many letters sent to the theater of young people telling me their story. I get people tweeting at me or Instagram messaging me. I sometimes get people at the stage door telling me about something they have gone through,” he said.
“This is the kind of role that people latch on to when wanting to talk about their loneliness or their struggles. It comes with the territory of playing this role,” he added.
Boniello’s experience reflects a tricky problem for shows and plays that portray suicide. Even if producers have tried to handle the issue with sensitivity — by hiring mental health consultants for the script, adding the suicide prevention hotline to their program, or partnering with nonprofits to provide mental health resources — they are still left to grapple with the deeply personal fan mail that pours in after it premieres.
“It’s hard to predict what a fictional story will do to people. … You’re going to upset people who potentially have experience with these things and are going to need to talk about it,” said Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and a researcher who has studied media portrayals of suicide.
Such messages are a common occurrence for the cast and producers of “Dear Evan Hansen.” The show has been criticized by some for its portrayal of mental health, with some critics arguing it exploits mental illness as a plot point and paints people with mental illness as manipulative. But it has also been praised for raising awareness about mental health issues and suicide, especially among young people.
In either case, it’s clear that the show strikes a chord with many viewers — including some who reach out to the show in an urgent plea for help.
The “Dear Evan Hansen” team has come to lean heavily on Dr. Victor Schwartz for help handling those messages. Schwartz, a psychiatrist, works as the chief medical officer of the Jed Foundation, a suicide prevention organization that is among the play’s mental health partners. Schwartz and his team have been tasked with helping to respond to the flood of deeply personal fan messages sent to the social media accounts of the show and its cast members.
“The incoming messages went anywhere from ‘I’ve dealt with anxiety or depression and I really found the show an honest expression of those things’ … to things that were more at the extreme, like ‘Why should I go on?’ or ‘Your show is the only thing keeping me going,’” said Schwartz.
Three years since the show premiered on Broadway, the “Dear Evan Hansen” team and its partners developed a unique, streamlined system to respond to concerning messages from fans.
If the cast members receive a potentially concerning note in their Instagram messages or in a handwritten note, they pass it along to the “Dear Evan Hansen” production company. The messages get shuffled into one of several buckets, depending on the kind of response they require. The staff then reaches out to that person with a form letter — crafted with help from the Jed Foundation — that addresses the writer by name and details mental health resources that might be helpful.
“We’re not providing treatment. But we are providing this basic level of support and direction to pursue treatment,” said Schwartz.
When the message doesn’t fit squarely into one of those categories — or when someone seems imminently at risk — the Jed Foundation often reaches out to the writer directly.
“No matter what the hour of the day is, or the night, we get this message to Dr. Schwartz and his team,” said Stacey Mindich, the show’s New York producer. Mindich sees the responses as a simple acknowledgement to fans: We care, we’re here, and we want to help you find help.
Responding to the messages is also an effort to make sure the show doesn’t have any potentially harmful ramifications, which is a serious concern when it comes to media portrayals of mental illness. A study published in April suggested that teen suicides spiked after the first season of the show “13 Reasons Why,” which showed the suicide of a young girl. While some experts have questioned the analysis underlying that finding, the show was still broadly criticized for its handling of suicide. Netflix later removed the suicide scene from the first season.
A spokesperson for Netflix said the company has worked closely with Facebook (FB), Instagram, YouTube, and other social media platforms to alert them when a message indicates a person might be in crisis so that the platforms can get help to that individual. Netflix has also partnered with Crisis Text Line to support viewers in need of help.
“[There is] an ethical responsibility. You don’t want to put on a show that’s gonna be harmful to people,” Romer said.
That’s why it’s key for shows to plan, as best they can, for how fans might respond — and be prepared to handle that response. Romer said he was impressed with the system the team of “Dear Evan Hansen” has set up to reply to fan messages.
“They’re actually reaching out individually to people. That’s good that they do that. It’s actually quite responsible,” he said. “That’s about what you can expect when you’re dealing with loads of messages once the show is over,” he added.
Romer also suggested that production companies behind plays that center around suicide could go a step further by having mental health providers on hand at performances. They could note at the beginning of the performance that some fans have reacted strongly to the play and point people to where they could find the counselors after the show. That face-to-face interaction would help experts gauge how serious a person’s reaction to the show might be.
Boniello, the “Dear Evan Hansen” actor, said he is deeply grateful for the system his producers have in place. It’s a tricky situation for Boniello and the other actors — they understand that the show resonates deeply with audiences. They care about their fans and don’t want to dismiss their experiences. But they’re also not equipped to respond to some of the stories fans share. Schwartz and his colleagues have also trained each “Dear Evan Hansen” cast — the Broadway, Toronto, and London casts, along with the touring company — in how to handle those situations.
“We [trained] the cast in how to manage these interactions in ways that were sensitive to the needs of the audience, but at the same time respected their boundaries and privacy,” Schwartz said.
Even reading the messages can be emotionally exhausting work for the actors. Boniello said he is often upset by the messages he reads and has had to set boundaries around how often he opens them.
On Instagram, messages from people he doesn’t follow get filtered to a separate folder that he checks every few weeks. He has most notifications muted on Twitter. It’s part of how he tries to support his own mental health. Otherwise, he said, “it’s very overwhelming.” Boniello said he has found the messages to be one of the hardest parts about playing Connor.
When he does check his messages, Boniello immediately screenshots any concerning notes and sends them off to the “Dear Evan Hansen” staff that handles the responses — something he has had to do “more times than [he has] cared to.” But often, the writer sends him a second message — they want to let him know that someone from the show reached out with help.
“I’m happy to take the responsibility to make sure I’m seeing people who really have no one else to see them,” he said.
In part, that’s because many of the messages remind Boniello of how he felt years ago, when he was first experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder. He spent hours on the internet, reading messages about how anxiety manifests. He scoured for other people’s stories that sounded even a little bit like his own.
“I remember so desperately looking to see someone posting the way that I was feeling … so desperate for some sort of validation and help,” he said. Boniello wants to help young people who might be feeling the same way. Perhaps, he said, his openness about his own experiences or the responses from the “Dear Evan Hansen” team can nudge people to talk about their mental health with someone.
“I think that starting a conversation is 90% of the battle here,” he said. “So many people don’t even know where to begin.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.