Breel spotlights mental health through humor: Comedian tells his version of overcoming depression

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In an age where social media makes people appear to look so happy, twenty-two-year-old comedian Kevin Breel confronts an uncomfortable issue: mental health.

On Monday, April 11, Breel visited Saint Louis University on a nationwide tour promoting his book “Boy Meets Depression: Or Life Sucks and Then You Live.” The event was hosted by SLU Wellness in the Center for Global Citizenship.

Breel spoke to an audience of hundreds of SLU students at the Center for Global Citizenship. He described his childhood depression, which was fueled by his father’s alcoholism and the death of a close friend.

“I didn’t know how to help myself,” he said. “I spent all of my time in my room.”

After years of suppressing his illness, Breel decided that he would commit suicide in February of 2011. While writing a note to his family, he realized that he had never told anyone the things that he was writing.

“They’re just things that I’m afraid to talk about, and I just had this thought, which was that I shouldn’t quit on myself if I’ve never tried to help myself.” He told his mother about his thoughts the next day, and she took him to counseling. He described the counselor as a mirror, “an angle that can show you a different part of who you are.”

After a year of treatment, Breel finally felt at ease. But then a seventeen-year-old girl in his community committed suicide, and for the first time, Breel knew that he was not the only one who dealt with depression.

“I had spent four years of my life really thinking that I was alone in the struggle and that I was weird and sort of like the only person dealing with that.”

Breel began researching mental health seriously, and found that in his native Canada, suicide is the number one cause of death for persons ages 17 to 25, and that there were more than one millions suicides worldwide within the previous year.

He struggled with these facts and felt compelled to act. His counselor told him that “All of us in our life are living our own version of a story… and with that, you can either share it, or you can be ashamed of it.” Breel chose to share it.

In 2013, Breel gained international attention with his TED Talk, “Confessions of a Depressed Comic,” which today has more than four million internet views.

He received thousands of emails in response to the video, most of which were from people who related to his story. He found that the red thread connecting all the messages was that “Not only do people struggle with [this], but they don’t know how to talk about it and they really just don’t think they can.”

During a visit to his mother’s house, Breel found old journals that he had written in as a teenager. “I would use those journals as kind of like this safe place to go and say things that I didn’t have the courage or the bravery to say to a real person.”

He kept them hidden inside a closet, within a shoebox buried under clothes for fear that would someone would find them.

Breel spent the next year writing a book that imitated the style of the journals. It was published by Random House in September of 2015 and gained critical acclaim, being reviewed by news sources such as The Huffington Post and NPR.

“I would love to stand up here and say that’s because of me, or because I’m a good writer or something like that, but it really isn’t. It’s because for the first time ever, people are willing to have this conversation.”

Mental health is a topic that people are hesitant to talk about. Breel aims to break the stigma.

In an interview after the show, he said that “The concept of honesty and vulnerability is something that we never really teach kids at all from a young age … so when you grow up, you feel disconnected from [a] society that seems to be so perfect and so happy.”

Breel’s take-home message was that people should not be afraid to seek help for their mental health issues, which he communicated with a delicate mix of solemnity and humor. Depression and other treatable mental illnesses plague college campuses, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Breel encouraged the audience to help those in need.

“You can be a bridge between somebody and hope.”