By Alisa Hurwitz
At any given time, more than 1 in 5 adults is experiencing a mental illness. While treatment is effective and vital to recovery, art can also help. Theater is an art form I find particularly powerful. It can educate, empathize and make us feel understood. The lyrics and music resonate with our emotions and internal struggles as we cling to characters we see ourselves in. The following three musicals about mental illness just may help you better understand yourself and others. So, be sure to check them out if you can.
This musical is about an anxious teenager who lies to a mourning family out of fear, convenience and a desire to feel like he belongs. When Evan is misidentified as a friend of a recently deceased classmate, he doesn’t deny it—not even to the person’s grieving parents, who grow close to Evan as they try to understand the son they just lost.
Throughout the musical, psychotherapy, medication, depression, anxiety and suicide are all directly confronted. The first song “Anybody Have a Map” dramatizes the rift between parents and teenagers experiencing mental illness:
“Does anybody have a map?
Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?
I don’t know if you can tell, but this is me just pretending to know.
So, where’s the map?
I need a clue cause the scary truth is I’m flying blind,
and I’m making this up as I go.”
What parent of an adolescent would not relate to those words—desperate to know how to connect and communicate?
Diana Goodman is experiencing serious mental health problems as she copes with the trauma of losing her son in this intimate family drama about mental illness. At one point, she stops taking her medication, which is expertly dramatized in the song “I Miss the Mountains.” Diana describes a desire to return to her manic symptoms:
“But I miss the mountains,
I miss the dizzy heights.
All the manic magic days,
and the dark depressing nights.”
This is a common complaint from patients with bipolar disorder and can lead to individuals halting their medication—against medical advice—in order to experience their manic episodes again. The musical also examines the impact mental health conditions can have on families.
This play follows Jane, whose depression is an actual character in the show aptly named Depression. Depression is distinctive enough from Jane to warrant her own songs, such as “Your Protection,” in which she argues that she is only doing what’s best for Jane.
“The world is full of danger—
I prepare you to fight or flee.
No one cares as much as me.
I’m not the enemy;
I’m your protection.”
During the story, Jane’s mood dips so low that she requires an inpatient stay in a hospital. Inadequate care at the hospital leads to a preventable tragedy that bonds a group of patients into action. This play bravely and unabashedly explores issues of treatment, negative self-talk, psychiatry and stigma.
Musicals might be the perfect art form for exploring mental health, because theater allows audiences into characters’ lives through dialogue and song. When words alone are insufficient, a song begins. And the combination of words and music allow for a deeper understanding of the people inhabiting the world on stage, and thus a greater understanding of ourselves.
Dr. Alisa Hurwitz is a clinical psychologist and writer. She practices at The Counseling Center of Nashua in southern New Hampshire and maintains a blog and interview site that focuses on the intersection of theater and psychology. You can read more of her articles and interviews with Broadway luminaries at www.DrDrama.com.
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