Comedian, author, and activist Kevin Breel’s upbringing in western Canada prepared him for one thing: not to talk about addiction or depression. His father wrestled with both, and Kevin learned early on it was off limits to speak about. That was before he shared his story with Williston Northampton School students during a special Assembly on October 19 after a TEDx talk he gave in 2013 went viral—it’s been viewed more than four million times to date. Kevin also wrote a memoir, Boy Meets Depression, Or Life Sucks and Then You Live.
But as a young teen, he faced a dysfunctional home life, made better by frequent trips to the home of his middle school best friend, Jordan. Kevin spent time there being a normal kid. It was a second home to him. When Jordan died in a car accident when Kevin was 14, however, depression overwhelmed him.
For several years following Jordan’s death, Kevin struggled with pervasive sadness, all the while showing the world a happy-face mask. He captained his basketball team and earned academic honors. At 17, though, he reached a low point. He wrote a suicide note and planned to swallow a bottle of pills. “I didn’t want to keep living this life. I just felt that I needed it to stop.”
After writing the note, he sat on his bed and thought. He realized he had never spoken about anything in the note with anyone he knew. “Every last sentence was a secret that I had never shared.”
At last, he decided, “I can’t quit on myself if I never tried to help myself. I’m just going to talk about it.” He figured keeping it all in wasn’t working. What if he tried the opposite.
He spoke to his mother about it the next day, and she set up a therapist appointment. His therapist, who he sees to this day, helped him take his illness and make something positive out of it. After a year of therapy, Kevin felt better than ever. But the suicide of a teen girl in a nearby town took a toll on him. The story was prevalent in the news for a week, and then died down. He couldn’t shake the feeling that people would forget and move on, but the story felt so important to him. Prodded by his therapist, he researched depression and found that one million people under age 25 kill themselves each year.
As he worked to create a career in comedy, he was invited to speak at the local TEDx, a symposium for technology, education, and design talks. He started this way: “For a long time in my life, I felt like I’d been living two different lives. There’s the life that everyone sees, and then there’s the life that only I see.” He goes on to say that he’s lived depression for six years. And that’s OK. “My pain, more than anything in 19 years on this planet, has given me perspective,” he said. “And my hurt, my hurt has forced me to have hope.”
Back in the Chapel, Kevin gave two pieces of advice to Williston students. One: Own your story. Embrace all that you are and what’s happened to you. And two: be a better friend. Support those who need it. Listen when someone needs to tell their story.
“The only way we’re going to beat a problem that people are battling alone,” he said, “is by standing strong together.”