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TEDx speaker shares personal experience of mental illness

| Friday, October 9, 2015

After almost taking his own life at 17, Kevin Breel turned to stand-up comedy and writing to spread awareness for mental health issues.

“I was 17 years old and I reached a real rock bottom point. … The past few years of my life hadn’t really felt like a life — it felt like a lie,” Breel said in a talk Thursday night in DeBartolo Hall. “I knew I needed help but I had no idea what help would look like because we just didn’t have conversations like this.”

Breel, who spoke as part of Irish State of Mind Week, is now 21, and a Canadian comedian, author and mental health activist, made famous by his 2013 Ted Talk, “Confessions of a Depressed Comic.” He spoke Thursday night as part of Irish State of Mind Week.

“I grew up in Canada. I grew up in a home where mental health issues were close in my life. My dad struggled with depression and dealt with that through alcoholism,” Breel said. “The way my family interacted with that — dealt with that — was that we weren’t supposed to talk about it. We were very secretive.”

Breel said when he was 13 years old, he lost a close friend in a car accident and for the first time experienced feelings of deep grief.

“I didn’t want to let anyone into that. … I think that’s a popular narrative, that we’re supposed to look shiny and better, and put everything aside, so it was a very conscious decision to keep other people out,” he said. “I would keep everyone on the outside, and I got really good at putting on a social face for everyone. I had this fear of other people finding out.”

Four years later, he hit rock bottom and nearly took his life when he was home alone one February night, Breel said.

“The next day, I sat down with my family, and we had a very real conversation, and that felt like a huge weight was lifted off of me,” he said.

At his parents encouraged him to, Breel began to go to counseling once a week, and then decided to pursue a career in stand-up comedy.

“I was living in these two very bizarre worlds of stand-up comedy and going to counseling,” he said.

Months into his career, one of his fellow comedians took her own life, which caused him to reconsider mental health awareness.

“I started to become obsessed with researching this, and I realized … the number one cause of death for people my age wasn’t car crashes, it wasn’t illness — it was suicide,” he said.

Frustrated with the stigmas surrounding mental illness, he said he turned to his counselor for guidance.

“He said there are two ways to go — you could share your story or you could be ashamed of your story,” Breel said. “At that time in my life, that was my worst nightmare. I mean, I did stand-up comedy and sharing this story was about the least funny thing I could do.”

Shortly after, Breel gave a talk for TedxKids@Ambleside. Breel said he was surrounded by kids talking about their parents and “how field trips gave [them] imagination.”

“It was so awkward, no one knows how awkward that is. I mean, I’m 6-foot-6 and there’s an eleven-year-old genius backstage doing a Rubik’s cube, and it’s like, where am I?” he said.

His talk quickly went viral, getting over two million hits in the following weeks.

“Instantly, I saw that this talk was a way for people to share their story. It created a small ripple effect for people to talk about it, and all of a sudden two million people had seen it,” he said.

Breel said the talk inspired him to go on to write his childhood memoir, “Boy Meets Depression,” where he explores the ways depression entered his life as a child and how he continues to cope with it today.

“This one thing kept on coming up — you don’t get over it, you get through it,” he said.

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About Rachel O'Grady

Rachel O'Grady is a senior Political Science major living in Ryan Hall and is currently serving as an Assistant Managing Editor. Hailing from Chicago (actual Chicago, not the suburbs) she's been a Cubs fan since birth.

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  • Captain Murphy

    Hmm, I believe that certain emotions like depression or anxiety are more common in youth because of their changing chemicals. I wouldn’t call it a mental illness as much as I would call it a transition into biological adulthood.