Prescription: See "Next to Normal" and talk more about mental illness
July 20, 2023
Content warning: Mental illness; suicide
I’m not a doctor, but I play one on stage. This week the Starling Company presents “Next to Normal,” a mental illness musical. The story focuses on a family that has been touched by tragedy and doesn’t know how to cope with the lingering emotional damage. We hope you join us at the Broadway Theater to laugh, maybe cry, and begin conversations on mental illness.
The show illustrates the ramifications of how we engage with mental illness (or refuse to acknowledge it). At first glance, the Goodmans look like the perfect loving family. Parents Dan and Diana are under pressure but loving, and their teenage children Gabe and Natalie juggle extracurriculars. But behind smiling masks, waves are steadily growing.
As Diana wrestles with bipolar depression, we see the tsunami impact her family and those in their orbits. Dan is exhausted holding his family together. Natalie’s boyfriend wants to help, but she holds him at length fearing she will repeat her mother’s madness. Well-meaning doctors prescribe treatment, but medication and therapy aren’t enough to heal what is broken.
There are no villains in this show. No one acts out of antagonism. However, that’s not to say everyone is innocent. Questionable acts are committed out of love. Long unspoken truths emerge as screams, explosive and unsparing.
Ignoring, dancing around, or lying about mental illness doesn’t do anyone any good. Suicide is never the option, but it is considered when one feels isolated and hopeless. By the end of the performance, the Goodmans show signs of recovery, but only after the characters start being open and honest with each other.
The themes in “Next to Normal” are familiar but not spoken about enough. An estimated 25 percent of the U.S. adult population have a diagnosable mental disorder, but afraid of taboos or saying the wrong thing, we say nothing. Help is rarely requested or offered. We don’t know who is struggling, quietly enduring their original injury and the consequences of repression and neglect. In the end, silence kills; some suicides are just slower than others.
Things would be different if we treated mental illness more like physical maladies. Imagine if we were willing to talk about it, listen, and share similar struggles. When needs are acknowledged, we can devote more resources to meeting them.
We hope “Next to Normal” spurs conversations that people were afraid of or unsure how to have. If you don’t know what to say, start by admitting your uncertainty and expressing how much you care. Then reassure them, “There will be light.”
-- Caleb Michael Smith, also known as psychopharmacologist Dr. Fine
Note: If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. You can also text or dial 988.