Mike Faist is a Tony-nominated actor who played the role of Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen since the musical first premiered in Washington, D.C. in 2015 until May 13th of this year. The musical — in which teens struggle with mental health issues and the impact of social media — opened on Broadway in 2016. Faist’s final performance in the show was on May 13.
Between our D.C. production and our Off-Broadway production of Dear Evan Hansen, I decided to try and research more about people like Connor, the troubled character I play in the musical.
I wanted to hear from first-hand experiences, so I researched suicide attempt survivors. The only thing that was out there were friends and family members commenting on their loved ones who had passed away from suicide, much like how our play is constructed. Then I came across Live Through This, which is a series of portfolio interviews from the survivor community — people who had attempted suicide, survived and wanted to talk about their experiences.
After reading many of these interviews, I reached out to Dese’Rae L. Stage, who created the project, and asked if she would answer some questions I had and if she would talk to me over the phone. She obliged, and I am forever indebted to her. Live Through This is the only one of its kind, from my understanding, and is an extremely important view to learn from.
Dese’Rae and I met at the Music Box Theatre in New York in 2016, and I interviewed her about her work. Here is her story in her own words.
(Some parts of this interview have been condensed for clarity and length, and have been updated to reflect current statistics.)
Mike Faist: What is Live Through This?
Dese’Rae L. Stage: Live Through This is a multimedia series of portraits and stories of suicide attempt survivors across the United States. Right now there are 184 people in 36 cities who have been involved with the project. The whole idea is to show that suicide can affect anyone. People in this project are all shapes and sizes, and come from all different walks of life. It’s pretty incredible.
Yeah! When I first read it, it was incredible to see all these different stories and backgrounds and how they came together and how they were all so similar. What compelled you to start Live Through This?
Suicide has been a part of my life since I can remember. I had a family friend die when I was very young, and then, when I was a teenager, one of my friends died by suicide around the same time depression hit me for the first time. I’ve had other close friends die by suicide, and I had my own suicide attempt, so it’s just something that’s kind of been around all my life. When I lost a friend to suicide the first time, I decided that I wanted to do suicide research. I wanted to be a psychologist. I wanted to help kids who were like me who felt they had no one to talk to. For whatever reason, that academic path didn’t work out. Research on suicide was a little too taboo for most researchers back then, so I left. I moved to New York, I taught myself photography, and I came to a point where I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. I immediately turned back to this idea of suicide prevention. How could I prevent people dying from suicide using my camera instead of using science?
What would you say has been the biggest thing that you’ve learned from venturing forward with your camera?
I think the biggest thing I learned was that my original hunch was true: we are never alone. There are so many people who have been through this experience — maybe once, maybe more than once — and a lot of us just don’t talk about it. We haven’t felt safe to talk about it. Now what I see with the project is that, when I do these interviews and when I publish these stories and when I travel to do talks, more and more people come up to me or e-mail me and say, “Hey, I’ve been there too.” That’s a pretty incredible thing — that people are finally feeling that it’s okay to talk about it.
Why do you think we are just now able to talk about suicide?
Since I’ve started the project, more and more mental health professionals have come around to the idea of listening to these stories, instead of seeing us as problems to medicate, or to treat. They’re seeing us as people, and people with stories, and people with stories that can inform their work. We are also seeing a lot of media that deals with suicide. I mean, Dear Evan Hansen is an example. There are shows on TV right now dealing with suicide. I see suicide on TV, in music, on podcasts almost every day. It’s just something that, I want to say, has almost become an obsession. We don’t understand it, and so people are constantly grappling with it, whether it’s through art, or quietly on their own. We’re starting to talk about it slowly, and I think a lot of things are making that happen.
When you had your attempt, when you were in the hospital, you lied on your psych evaluation so you could get released. Why?
I did that because I wanted to be a psychologist, and I was young enough to believe that a medical record would hurt my chances of being a psychologist. Now, I know that that’s not true. That would be a total HIPAA violation. I wouldn’t recommend doing that. I got lucky after doing that, though, in that I had family and friends who were willing to take care of me after my attempt.
What are some real-life day-to-day struggles that you face?
I forget to eat. If I don’t have a routine in place, I’ll forget to take my medication. I’m not good at household chores. I’ll walk into a room and see 10 things wrong and not know where to start. Then I get overwhelmed and paralyzed and walk away. Everything is an extra effort for me, and so it can be hard to get through the day without feeling like a completely useless person, especially when you have a partner who doesn’t struggle with this stuff. You want it to be 50/50. You want to be there for them as much as they are for you. Self-care is extremely important. I am on my mental health more than I am on anything. I go to therapy like it’s my job. If I’m having a tough day, I try to take a step back and evaluate and do something that makes me feel good, because if you spiral, then that’s when it gets dangerous. I try to catch myself before I spiral. I will also tell people. I’m pretty open about when I struggle. I’ll tell people when I’m having a rough time. That allows for me to be accountable to myself and to others, because they’ll check in on me. They’ll send me cat GIFs or text and ask me if there is anything I need.
It’s like going to the gym. You just got to keep up the work. Keep doing it, keep showing up, keep at it. It’s a day-to-day practice. What about applying for a job?
In my case, I wanted to go into the mental health field, and there is a lot of internalized stigma in the mental health field. We expect our clinicians to not suffer, and if they do, they can’t tell anybody. They can’t disclose to their clients, which, I think, is a little shady. I think it’s an ethical issue. I personally would love it if I had a therapist who struggled in some way.
Who could relate to you, maybe?
Yeah, who can relate on a really personal level.
But if you are applying for a job and you do disclose that information, and there is someone up against you who is just as good as you are but who doesn’t struggle… there’s a possibility that they might get chosen over you. I don’t think the discrimination laws are where they need to be. You can’t call out depressed. And people don’t believe that being depressed is being sick. There is some sort of disconnect between physical illness and emotional struggles that people just cannot get together.
I read something that you said recently about how you shouldn’t link together mental health and suicide. What exactly do you mean by that?
I think that we love to use mental health diagnoses to “Other” people. Diagnoses have their place where they’re helpful, but the larger public doesn’t necessarily understand that, and so it’s like, “Oh, the crazy people over there.”
While there is definitely an interaction there, I don’t think that you necessarily have to have a conversation about a mental health diagnosis to talk meaningfully about suicide. I don’t think they need to be married to each other. Suicide is about isolation, and it’s about despair. I think, if we can start there with those conversations, at some of the most basic human emotions, it would probably be a lot easier for people to understand and for people to empathize with.
Those are more universal, general, human themes. Along this crazy journey of life, there are hills and valleys. Everyone experiences them. There is something to be said about the relationship with life and death and the marriage between the two. Coming to terms with our own mortality. There is something more universal there when we are talking about isolation, feeling alone, and like no one is really there to help you.
Yeah, and I think that they do work together. I think that there are overlaps, but what we have to understand is that there is isolation and despair, and then we have to understand that we have to reach out and help people find hope, because we are responsible for one another.
Correct me if I’m wrong but, when I was doing research for Dear Evan Hansen, I took to the internet and I wanted to find suicide attempt survivors, but really the only people I could find were family members and friends who had lost loved ones to suicide. Your website was the only one with people who have attempted suicide, survived, and are willing to talk about their experience. Is your website the only one that exists?
Being able to open about this and be public about this is really new; 2014 was the first time one of the national suicide prevention organizations, the American Association of Suicidology, really recognized the attempt survivor community—or the “Lived Experience Movement,” as we’re calling it.
In what way? What do you mean by that?
Well, the American Association of Suicidology created a division for us. That means we have the recognition as a group of people within their organization who have specific needs, unique needs, who can also interact with the rest of the suicide prevention field. But again, that was 2014. That was the first time that we were recognized. That was a big step and all of the rest of the organizations followed. Now, our voices, as people who have lived through suicidal despair, are affecting outreach and policy and research.
In terms of doing in-depth narratives and portraits, I’m the only one doing that, and I don’t know why that is. It could be that it’s extremely time-consuming. It could be any number of things. I don’t really know why. I think people are trying to get the narratives out there, but it’s slow. For a while, there was another project called What Happens Now. It was run by a journalist. She did narratives—she interviewed people—but she stopped a couple years ago, and I’ve been going since 2010. Hopefully it picks up a little more, but it’s slow. People still look at us like we’re crazy and people have ideas that suicidal people are selfish and manipulative, that we’re dangerous. They think that, if you want to kill yourself and you’re stopped, you’re just going to find a way to kill yourself anyway, which is patently untrue. There are just so many misconceptions that really make it hard for people to understand, and then subsequently want to help.
How do you find the people you profile?
When I first started, I was still working in the music industry, and I had all the public relations contacts, so I reached out to famous people who I knew had attempted suicide. Obviously, that didn’t work out because I had no body of work. Nobody knew who I was, so it was never going to work. I gave up that ambitious goal, and I started posting Craigslist ads. Craigslist has a questionable history with suicide so, even though my subject line was something like, “Suicide Attempt Survivors Wanted for Educational Portrait Project,” it would just get tagged.
Yeah, it would get taken down. I kept putting it up because I was persistent and, eventually, I found two or three people that way. I interviewed them. Then, the more I talked about it, occasionally I would get a friend who would say, “Oh, I’ve had this experience. I’d like to tell you my story,” and I would have no idea. That’s how the project grew—and brought me closer to some friends—in the beginning. Then I did a Kickstarter in 2013, and 600 people helped me raise $23,000 to help take the project out of New York and across the country. It was kind of around then when the press started coming in, so now people come to me, which I like better, because that way, I know that they are ready to share and that they feel safe, and that sharing won’t re-traumatize them. They are coming to me from a good place instead of me reaching out and asking somebody who might not be ready to do this. To me, that safety and that comfort is important, and they already know when they reach out to me that I’m an attempt survivor. There’s a trust there that is just automatic.
What do you hope to achieve with Live Through This?
In a way, the biggest hope has already been achieved: I know that the project is helping people. That’s all I ever really wanted, and now every extra thing that happens is just an extra really great thing. What I’m feeling really good about right now is that some graduate programs are picking it up and it’s being used as a teaching tool because in 40 states, suicide training is not mandatory for future mental health professionals.
Only 10 states…
Only 10 states have to train their incoming therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, to know how to manage a suicidal crisis. Oftentimes, people are going to a therapist hoping that they’ll know how to deal with their suicidal thoughts, and maybe that therapist doesn’t. A lot of the time, you really have to seek that knowledge out on your own. The fact the Live Through This is being taught is really huge for me. Also, this happening—being involved with you and the show—is huge, and it’s just another thing that I never expected. Dear Evan Hansen is affecting a lot of people. Being able to reach artists who are dealing with roles like this, or who are building plots around suicide, and being able to guide them has been so exciting for me. The suicide prevention world focuses a lot of journalists and providing safe messaging, which is a big passion of mine, but I think we need to go to the artists, too. How many years did you study this role?
I’ve been working on Connor since June of 2014.
Yeah. And people who write books? Years. Movies? Years. We’re overlooking people who are creating content that could save lives, and it’s a missed opportunity for the suicide prevention field. I think it has something to do with fiction versus non-fiction, but we do our fellow humans a disservice by assuming that fiction doesn’t affect their hearts and minds in the same way real life does. I’ve carried fictional characters around with me my whole life. I have tattoos on me with quotes from fictional characters. They affect me every day, and they’ve kept me alive. Spending more time guiding artists on how to safely and meaningfully tell these stories is a big hope of mine, and I think it could really help change the way people think about suicide.
There is something about what Dear Evan Hansen does that makes it more accessible for people to understand problems that people might be facing. Playwright Paula Vogel said there is something about coming to realizations and truths in a dark theater with a community that makes it safe. You can deal with confrontation in problems in a healthy way when you are at the theater.
And in this theater [the Music Box Theatre] specifically, you are in a room full of people who are sobbing. Men, women…
Everyone is just sobbing for 2 hours!
Literally! There is one last question, and it’s what you ask everyone at the end of every interview, and that is: If you were to directly address somebody reading your story what would you say to them?
God, that’s hard.
You came up with the question!
Well, you know… I never have to answer it! I think I would tell people to hold on, to find a way to get through a minute, and then a couple, and then an hour, and then a day, and a week. I’ve been suicidal many times. I’m pretty sure I haven’t been suicidal for the last time. The older I get, the better I get at dealing with it. When I was young—that’s when it started—that was when it was the worst, because I had never experienced it. I thought it would never end. I didn’t feel safe talking to anyone. There was nothing good about being a young person suffering with depression. Living through it really is about finding ways through those moments. Find anything that you love and just go do it. You know, when I lived in New York and I had a bad day, I would get one of those giant, Venti Starbucks things that cost $10 (because it’s New York), and then I’d walk around the Lincoln Center area, and that made me feel better. Or I’d go to a movie alone. It’s just about finding the thing that makes you okay for a little while, and going with that as much as you can. That’s easier said than done, but it can be done.