A star high school athlete, Kevin Breel was, to the onlooker, bright and successful. But beneath his outgoing exterior he harbored a dark secret: suicidal depression. After a TED talk video in which he shared his story garnered millions of views, Breel has spent his time touring the United States and Canada speaking about acceptance, both of himself and of others who struggle with mental illness. On Monday, March 31, Pomona College hosted 20-year-old Breel, a Canadian
comic-turned-mental-health-advocate, at Rose Hills Theatre.
Breel’s story is particularly significant given the rise of mental illness in recent years.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide now outstrips motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of
violent death in the United States. The National Institute of Mental Health has found that depression is
the leading cause of disability among workers 15-44 years old. Here at the 5Cs, Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services is booked
weeks in advance with students fighting mental illness.
I conducted the following interview with Breel via email to ask him about the stigmas surrounding mental illness and how he copes with his mental illness. It has been edited for length.
TSL: How and why does society perpetuate the stigmas surrounding mental illness? How do
you envision our perceptions and interactions with mental illness changing over the next
five, 10, 20 years?
Kevin Breel: The idea of depression or suicide is an uncomfortable thing for most people to talk about. It
tends to focus on people’s pain or problems or imperfections and naturally, people shy away from
discussing those things about themselves out of a sense of vulnerability or fear. I see it
developing or changing just by the fact that there are events like the one here at Pomona. People are
talking. There’s a conversation. I’m not so sure that would have happened even a decade ago. So
that is definitely encouraging.
TSL: What would you say to someone who has never experienced depression to explain what it
feels like? What would you tell them to say to someone who is depressed?
KB: What I would say to someone who is dealing with depression is that there is hope to replace your
hurt and there is help available. A lot of people struggling don’t want to let people in to their pain
or share what they are experiencing, but I think it’s the healthiest thing. A community of
caring people can combat the loneliness you might be feeling, and being willing to share doesn’t
take away your pain, but it does give you freedom from feeling like you have to hide or walk
through it alone. I think honesty and getting help are a powerful combination; at least they have
been for me in my personal life.
TSL: Your blog says you are a frequent meditator. Is that still true? Do you consider yourself
KB: I still meditate. It’s great. It helps. It opens your mind up and calms you down. At least for me it
does. Sometimes it feels like I have so many random thoughts in a day that meditation is the only
way to bring that noise down and find some sense of stillness. I think meditation has a “New Age Spirituality” connotation attached to it that I don’t particularly care for. To me, it’s just about the
idea of being quiet, not staring at a screen, not watching some bad movie. Just being still. We run around so much and are always connected [to] some device that we don’t really do that in
everyday life, so I think it’s great.
TSL: It seems like your life has changed pretty dramatically since your TED talk went viral. What
positive experiences have you had in taking this issue on the road? What have been the
KB: Some parts of my life have changed. Ultimately, I feel like the same person with the same friends
living in the same city, so it doesn’t feel like too much has changed at the same time. But I’ve
gotten to meet amazing people with stories that inspire me, and I’ve gotten to see parts of the
world I never thought I would see. The only negative is how hard it is to be on the road for
a month or two at a time. I travel by myself and it can be lonely. You learn to watch a lot of
Netflix and make sure you call people back home all the time, and it’s okay. It’s just a tough
thing. I’m a young guy and touring at the level I do now is very intense. But I love it so it’s all
good and always feels like it’s worthwhile. I’m very lucky to have a bunch of people who support
me and I wouldn’t be able to do it without that.
TSL: Do you still struggle with depression? What coping mechanisms have you found work for
KB: I still struggle with it from time to time. For me, I just stay close to people who care about me
and make sure I’m talking to my counselor. It’s a pretty simple practice to do; it’s just about being
consistent with it. That’s the tough part. When everything is feeling great, sometimes it seems
weird to go see your counselor. But that’s what it’s all about. Just being consistent with it and
understanding as much about why you’re joyful as why you might be depressed. Counseling,
community, exercising … None of it is a “quick fix.” It’s a process, a practice, something you have
to show up for all the time.
Warren Szewczyk PO ’15 is a neuroscience major who also co-hosts the radio program Reality Check, which explores the intersection of science and the spirit. In his spare time, he is an avid writer of spoken-word poetry.