Kevin Breel speaks about mental illness, depression

Mia Silverio


(April 16, 2015)

Kevin Breel and NHS senior Leah Hull shake hands after the performance.

Kevin Breel is a comedian and a mental health activist. Though that combination might seem counterintuitive, Breel marries comedy and mental health quite well. The Nantucket High School student body had the chance to learn from Breel during an assembly in the Mary P. Walker Auditorium on March 26.

Breel first told his story to the world when he spoke at a TEDx conference in Vancouver, Canada in 2013. Breel confessed that he felt like he was living two different lives. One side of him was the team captain, the guy who was a friend to all, and the class comedian. The other was a young man who thoroughly struggles with depression.

“It’s hard for me to talk about, and it seems to be hard for everyone to talk about, so much so that no one’s talking about it. And no one’s talking about depression, but we need to be, because right now it’s a massive problem. But we don’t see it on social media, right? We don’t see it on Facebook. We don’t see it on Twitter. We don’t see it on the news, because it’s not happy, it’s not fun, it’s not light. And so because we don’t see it, we don’t see the severity of it,” said Breel said in his 11 minute TEDx talk. Breel’s “Confessions of a Depressed Comic” now has over one million views and its popularity earned it a spot in the 150 most viewed TED talks on YouTube.

While it might seem insensitive or foolish upon first glance, to combine laughing and talking about depression, Breel’s reasoning for doing so makes perfect sense.

“I believe that humor opens the heart. And when the heart is open, we can talk about these topics that people tend not to talk about,” he said. “It just was a very natural thing for me to do.  I never really thought about it too much. If I did, I probably would have been too nervous to ever try it because yes: it is extremely counterintuitive.  But I’m happy I was naïve enough to go up there and do it because it’s worked out okay for me.”

The Nantucket Behavioral Health Symposium worked to bring Breel to Nantucket in conjunction with the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, the Nantucket Hotel, Access Nantucket, the Tower Foundation, the Community Foundation, Family and Children’s Services of Nantucket, Cape Cod Five, and Nantucket Cottage Hospital. Breel began his talk by lightening the mood with some improvisational humor with the audience.

“He shared a difficult story in an upbeat way, which was cool” said NHS junior Lauren Wilson.

“It’s hard for me to hold a microphone and be on stage and not want to make people laugh.  So it just sort of happens unconsciously, but I find it helps soften some of the stories and some of the themes of my talks,” said Breel in an email.

Breel began with telling the story of the death of his best friend when Breel was thirteen. This tragedy insighted a feeling of aloneness and sadness within him that lasted throughout his teenage years.

“I felt alone and so to cope with that I became two different people,” said Breel. One side was the funny student everyone was friends with, and the other was the student who struggled with depression.

“Everyday started to blend into one another and I was so lost in this fog of being depressed and lying about it that I reached this moment in my life where everything was kind of private and four years of lying and hiding came together on one day,” said Breel.

On that day, Breel decided to take his own life. He wrote a suicide note and was inches away from purposely overdosing on pills.

“I truly, in that moment, no longer wanted to be alive, I felt no reason to, I just felt broken and dejected and I wanted more than anything this pain inside of me to stop and to just go away,” said Breel. “When I wrote this note, this really interesting thing happened to me that shifted my perspective. I wrote out everything that I had been keeping inside and when I was done writing it I looked it over and I realized that every single thing that was on that peice of paper were all things that I had kept in secret… I realized this one fundamental truth was that I had been keeping all of that as a secret and that secret, whenever you have any kind of secret, there is another thought attached to it that says that we should be ashamed of it, because the stuff that we keep secret, the stuff that we hide is the stuff that we think makes us imperfect and flawed and bad.”

Breel went on to explain that the suicide of a young woman in his town made him really look into the “mental health epidemic.”

“I came to find out that 12 to 14 teenagers in North America a day die by suicide. In Canada, the main cause of death under kids 25 is suicide. In the world a million people a year die by suicide. If that was a million people a year dying by a flu, or if that was 12 to 14 teenagers a day being killed by a certain type of drug, then it would be all over the news, all over social media. But yet because it is mental health, this hard heavy topic, no one talks about it.”

After his TEDx talk began to circulate on YouTube, Breel received a special email.

“I got this email from a girl named Amber who was 17 years old, she lives in Virginia, and she wrote me this email, what it said basically was that she was writing me on that day and six months ago she had decided to take her own life. She was giving life six months to give her a reason to stay alive and she said six months had gone and she didn’t have that reason. She had woken up and one of her friends had sent her my TEDx talk and she clicked on the video and she watched it and she said that the talk became her one reason to believe that something better was possible for her life she said that it had nothing to do with me or anything I said, but it was about the simple fact that now she knew that she wasn’t alone. When I got to the bottom of the email I clicked on the attachment and it said in big bold letters, ‘for you’ and in smaller letters, ‘because I don’t need it anymore’ and it was her suicide note.”

Breel concluded that one can help people who are struggling with depression by letting them know that they are not alone.

“Let people know that you are there to talk to them if they seem down” said senior Nate Leibowitz, when asked to recall what he took away from the performance.

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