Six years ago, Kevin Breel almost committed suicide.
“I was just a 17-year-old kid sitting in my room scared and alone on my bed with a bottle of pills,” the public speaker, stand-up comedian, author and mental health activist told those gathered to hear him speak Monday at the Lynnwood Convention Center.
After years of battling depression following the death of his 13-year-old best friend, Breel believed he had nowhere to turn. “I just had this sense of hopelessness, feeling alone and scared, overwhelmed, and couldn’t see through the rest of the day,” said the Victoria, B.C. native known for his TedX talk “Confessions of a Depressed Comic” and his Random House-published book “Boy Meets Depression.”
Now 23 and living in Toronto, Breel was in Lynnwood to speak during the Healthier Community conference, sponsored by the Verdant Health Commission. The second annual conference was aimed at anyone interested in living a healthier life, and drew a range of attendees — from individual citizens to government officials to health care professionals. One of the three session tracks, titled “Healthier Mind,” focused on topics ranging from anxiety and depression to substance abuse to race and ethnicity mental health issues.
Attendees listened intently as Breel described that night in 2011 when he took out a piece of paper and wrote his suicide note. After rereading the note “at least 100 times,” Breel realized that he had kept everything written on that paper a secret. He had a heart-to-heart conversation with his mother, who was encouraging and supportive and insisted that he see a counselor, whom he still visits regularly.
Pointing to the audience gathered in the banquet room during his lunch-time address, Breel praised those who work on community mental health issues. “I’m still alive because of people like you,” he said, “because of people who actually care.”
Breel said his father struggled with mental health problems including alcoholism, but Breel learned at a young age not to talk about his dad’s situation with anyone. Instead, he spent as much time as possible in “a safe space” — the home of his best friend. When that friend died in a car crash at age 13, Breel recalled being left with “unbelievable pain” and struggled with waves of depression that he couldn’t talk about for fear of being labeled “weird and crazy.”
That changed during Breel’s counseling sessions, when he began to open up and talk about his depression and suicidal thoughts. “I started to have this thought in my head that maybe mental health is something that really matters,” Breel said. “Maybe this societal image that we created, where we go ‘this is physical health’ and ‘this is mental health’ and this one really matters and this one doesn’t, is completely backward.
“Because if you break your arm, it feels like everyone is ready to go over and sign your cast,” he continued. “We have this built-in empathetic response to physical injuries, to things we can see. But when it comes to our interior life, our emotional life, our spiritual life, it’s not as clear. If you say you’re struggling with depression, it feels like the whole world may run the other way.”
Breel had a chance to reach a wider audience when he was invited to tape a TedX talk on the topic, “Confessions of a Depressed Comic,” which was later shared on YouTube and now stands as one of the most-watched TedX talks of all time. At first, Breel was embarrassed by the attention the video garnered, but then he began hearing from people who watched it. In fact, he received more than 10,000 letters and emails — from teens struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts and from parents who had lost children to suicide or whose kids were struggling with self-harm issues.
One of those he heard from via email was a 17-year-old girl named Amber, who for five years struggled with addiction and depression. She took a razor blade to school each day, and at end of day, if she felt scared or hopeless, she would put another cut on her arm, Breel recalled. Amber relayed that she would always wear long sleeves — no matter how hot it was in the summer — because she didn’t want anyone to see the scars on her arms.
“And I thought that was the most perfect metaphor for how some of us go through our lives,” Breel said. “We are trying to pull our sleeves down, we’re trying to hide our pain, we’re trying to put these walls up and not let people see who we really are in hopes that it will somehow make it better. And it only makes it worse.”
Amber had given herself a deadline of a year to see if her life would get better. On the day that the year was up, she planned to commit suicide but had received a text message from a long-time friend who had shared a link to Breel’s TedTalk. She told Breel that after watching the video, she chose not to kill herself for a one reason: “For the first time in my life, I know I’m not the only teenager that may have struggled with depression.”
She also attached to the email her suicide note, because, she said, she didn’t need it anymore.
The real hero in the story, Breel said, is Amber’s best friend — “the person who keeps caring. The person who keeps showing up and says, ‘I’ll listen.'”
In today’s society, people live “in a culture of perfectionism and idealism and editing the best parts of your life to show people, but that’s not really what we’re wired for,” Breel said. “We’re wired for connection and for truth and for honesty. One million people each year commit suicide worldwide, we just see that as a number, as a statistic — but it’s real people, it’s real families, communities and cultures being ripped apart by this.”
He encouraged those in the audience to have the “uncomfortable conversation” about depression, not only at home but in the workplace and in their personal lives.
“The one hope I can leave you with is this idea that your story matters and you can make an enormous difference, clearly a difference between life and death, by listening, by caring, by showing up,” he said. “We don’t have to keep waking up in this world where there are one million suicides a year.”
— Story and photo by Teresa Wippel